Friday, August 08, 2014

The GLCCB Is An Important Institution for Baltimore’s LGBT Communities

Written by  Jim Becker; Executive Editor, Baltimore OUTloud

For thirty-seven years, Baltimore’s sexual and gender minority communities have had a community center to call their own. Since its founding in 1977, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) has been providing services to our communities while adjusting to the ever-changing political, social, and cultural landscape in which we live. Over these nearly four decades, we have experienced enormous gains in terms of visibility, acceptance, and pride—in no small part because of the GLCCB and groups like it throughout the country.

Given these advances and the improved environment in which LGBT people live, is the GLCCB still necessary and relevant? Or to put it another way, is it worth the our communities’ support? We think that the answer is an emphatic yes!

In 1977, few people were “out” to family, fewer on the job, and only a very small number of people were open in all aspects of their lives. Coming out, or more likely being “outed,” often led to family rejection, unemployment, social isolation, and could lead to violence and even suicide. The severe consequences of being open enforced a closet mentality that perpetuated our invisibility; people had no idea who we were and sincerely believed that no one in their family or circle of friends could be “one of them.”

Enter the era of grassroots activism that gave birth to the GLCCB. In short order, the Center began to provide a wide array of services. At various times it has operated a switchboard, speaker’s bureau, community outreach programs, youth services, women’s programs, health and mental health services, and social programs. The organization continues to publish Gay Life and sponsor the annual Pride celebration. And until this year, the Center building served as a vital and visible community resource and meeting space for a wide array of political, social, and self-help groups.

Today’s world is radically different than 1977. Homophobic attacks and slurs—see the world Cup—continue and violence against women and transgender people remains an epidemic. But, as the early Gay Liberation slogan proclaimed, truly, “we are everywhere!” Out characters are in movies, on TV—we have our own cable channel, and even in professional and college sports. Mainstream newspapers that for generations ignored us unless we were arrested for a crime now have reporters assigned to cover our communities. Same-sex weddings are announced in many large newspapers including the New York Times and Baltimore Sun. Young same-sex couples are readily accepted by their peers and can comfortably party with them in “straight” clubs.

So, with all of these gains, why is the GLCCB relevant in 2014? We think that the answer is much the same as it was in 1977. It is relevant because it is ours and it is a visible symbol of our existence. Its tasks have changed, as our needs have evolved, but it is our pink or rainbow beacon, a constant reminder that we are here. If the Center were to close, our communities and all of Baltimore will be very much the poorer. In the past it provided programing and services that did not exist anywhere else. Now, with our vastly improved visibility and social standing, many organizations are attuned to our needs. But no other organization exists solely for us. Specific Center programs and services may come and go, but the Center shouts that we are here and daily affirms our successes.

Surely, the last couple of years have not been particularly easy ones for the Center. The loss of the Center’s building is particularly sad, apparently the result of some misguided decisions over several years. The Center has often struggled to be relevant. Even in its heyday, when it had strong grassroots activists involved at every level, many LGBT people were at best indifferent. However, its early structure required community decision-making, which prevented it from drifting too far from its community roots. In those days, the Board was elected by the voting members comprised of those who attended quarterly meetings, or were volunteers, employees, or financial contributors. At one point, representatives of other LGBT organizations were also allowed to vote. The meetings were often difficult and the process of governance cumbersome, but it encouraged community participation and prevented the organization from becoming insular.

Sometime within the past twelve years, the Center radically revised its By-laws. Gone were the voting membership provisions and quarterly meetings and with them the mandated community input that in theory at least made the officers and Board answerable to us. While the new governing structure may have made it easier for those in charge to get things done, it sowed the seeds of community disengagement. Community participation, once demanded by the By-laws, was no longer required and community decision-making was eliminated.

We urge the Center Board to review its structure and institutionalize community engagement and decision-making. This will not be a panacea, and the organization will need to reach out to many segments of our communities to learn what is important to them. We also urge the Board to publish a financial report card so that we will know the challenges ahead.

We are encouraged by recent actions of the Center’s current leadership. With very little human capital or prior experience, the current employees, volunteers, and Board managed to hold a successful Pride that made money. There were some false starts and missteps but overall the event was a success, despite concerns about the location. More importantly, by holding a Town Hall meeting and distributing a community survey, the Center is now reaching out to the community for feedback as it plans next year’s event. It is also inviting the public to portion of the August board meeting. If it adopts this approach to its day-to-day operations and decision-making, if it continues what appears to be a new era of openness and community engagement, it is our hope that it will stabilize and be a vital resource for LGBT generations to come.

Ed. Note: Read more about the Center's Town Meeting in Maryland News, 'Community Members Confront GLCCB'.

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