Portland Equality Community Center ‘needed now more than ever’

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PORTLAND — The new Equality Community Center in downtown is designed to provide a safe and welcoming place for LGBTQ people of all types to gather for activities, or to just talk about everyday challenges.

The center at 511 Congress St. is overseen by a hub of LGBTQ nonprofit organizations, including Equality Maine and Portland Pride, that recently agreed to share space and support each other’s missions.

“LGBTQ people need a safe place to gather, now more than ever,” said Kirsten Griffith, who runs the Equality Community Center on a volunteer basis. “People can come in to play a game, read a book, do homework, meet with friends or for something as simple as using our gender-neutral bathroom or charging their phone.”

Chris O’Connor, development director for Equality Maine, said his organization joined the LGBTQ hub and supports the creation of the Equality Community Center for one simple reason: “Everyday life presents one barrier after another, which reinforces the need for a hub like this.”

The existence of the center, O’Connor said, also sends the message to “stay strong, there is a community behind you.”

For now, the Equality Community Center is only regularly open 1-7 p.m. Fridays on a drop-in basis. The goal, according to Griffith, is to gradually build up so that there’s something happening nearly every day.

“This is just the start,” she said. “We want to create an exchange of ideas across a cross-section of the LGBTQ community. I am looking for input on what people in the community want the center to be, based on actual needs. I don’t want to build something and just hope people show up.

“I see the center as a great opportunity for people to build relationships with others they might not meet otherwise,” Griffith said. “We have a lot of brilliant, intelligent, strong people doing great work and I want them to see each other.”

Griffith said some ideas already floated for activities at the Equality Community Center include a game night, a movie night, and speed-dating events.

“So many folks in the community need no-cost social opportunities,” Griffith said.

She said the idea was born out of a leadership class she took at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, where she’s a student.

Griffith has been out as queer since the age of 17. What that means, she said, “is that I identify as a woman, in terms of my own gender, but those I am attracted to or date, may not be.”

Her ultimate career goal is to work with service providers of all types, from doctors to tax preparers and to educate them, not only about the specific needs of the LGBTQ community, but in terms of the language used, as well.

“Less gender-specific language is crucially important,” Griffith said.

She said LGBTQ people are always under threat of both verbal and physical abuse, regardless of who occupies the White House.

Griffith said she is also aware that creating the Equality Community Center and making it visible could lead to retaliation, but said the possibility of such threats is the exact reason why a safe and welcoming space needs to be created.

“We want the center to provide a social environment of the community’s choosing,” she said of the overall goal. “A place where they can just show up and know that their peers are going to be here.”

The LGBTQ hub at 511 Congress houses a total of six organizations dedicated to providing support and resources for members of the community.

In addition to Equality Maine and Portland Pride, it is also home to Services & Advocacy for Gay Elders, or SAGE; the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network of Southern Maine; MaineTransNet, and Parents & Friends of Lesbians & Gays.

John Hennessy, a member of the board at SAGE, said the creation of an LGBTQ hub with an associated community center has been a dream for at least the last 20 years.

“We desperately need this to become a place where people can come for community,” he said. “The community center reinforces the notion that we’re all in this together.”

He agreed with Griffith that having an LGBTQ hub and community center could bring “safety concerns because we’re more visible now that we’re all gathered together.”

“In 2017, we have to be very aware of (possible threats),” Hennessy said, but added, “we are truly stronger together. This (center) is really starting to happen and it’s so, so important.”

To help support its work, Equality Maine is holding a fundraising gala and silent auction at 6 p.m. April 1 at the Holiday Inn by the Bay on Spring Street.

The event includes dinner, an awards ceremony and a special tribute to Maine’s LGBTQ bars and nightclubs. Tickets are available through March 24 and can be purchased online at equalitymaine.org/gala or at 761-3732, ext. 19.

In addition, Griffith said the Equality Community Center is planning to hold an open house during Portland’s next First Friday event, from 5-7 p.m. April 7.

What’s been made clear in recent months, O’Connor said, is that “now more than ever, we’re not done. The fight for full equality is never ending.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

A button pinned on a bulletin board at the new Equality Community Center on Congress Street in Portland.

Kirsten Griffith oversees the new Equality Community Center at 511 Congress St., Portland. The goal of the center is to give LGBTQ people a safe place to gather.