By Greg Hernandez
When Lauren Flans agreed to become co-facilitator of the Center’s popular HerStories social networking group, she never expected one of the participants to be videoconferencing from France.
When the COVID-19 pandemic prevented in-person meetings to continue being held at the Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza, the group, geared for LBTQ women who seek great conversation, began meeting online.
And word spread—around the country and the world.
“We just had no idea it would take off and continue. We have people from Arizona and Texas, and we have this amazing woman who wakes up at 4 a.m. in France to attend the group,” said Flans (pictured, left). “It’s also been good for people who are in Southern California and cannot leave their homes. It’s been incredible to open up the access.”
As the pandemic took hold last year, all of the Center’s Social Networking Groups quickly transferred over to the virtual platform including 30+Lesbian Chat, Transgender Perceptions, Bi-osphere, MasQ, Coming Out groups, Village Readers, and the Spanish-language ¡Hablémos! and Familias Latinx Entrelazadas (F.L.E.X.).
The expanded virtual reach has let LGBTQ people feel connected across the miles. Before the pandemic, the Social Networking Groups had a monthly total of approximately 250 participants. The attendance number has grown steadily to more than 400.
“People have managed to find and join our groups even if there are many hours in between their time zone,” said Social Networking Groups Coordinator Caín Andrade (pictured at top). “Some people’s neurodiversity, mental health, and mobility challenges have prevented them from attending a group physically. Now, they say, ‘Oh my God, I’m so glad these groups are available online because now I can come.’ So, we’re definitely going to keep the virtual components even after we are able to meet in person again.”
Before the global health crisis emerged, Andrade explained, the facilitators created a safe and brave space for all of our participants. During the pandemic, they’ve worked to recreate that space online. Flans has found the computer screen to be less of a barrier than expected when it comes to interpersonal connections.
“It still feels intimate. It still feels like you’re connecting with people,” she said. “All of the things that I was initially scared about moving to virtual have not impeded us at all. If anything, it’s really helped us become closer. People also attend more regularly. We now have a good group of people who attend almost every single week.”
The peer support and discussion groups are all led by trained and dedicated volunteer facilitators like Flans.
Ryan Provencher has been moderating groups, such as the men’s Coming Out group, MasQ, and Bi-osphere (a group for the bisexual community), for more than 13 years. He sees great value in using modern technology to stay connected.
“People in their daily lives don’t get to share their coming out or bisexuality or trans experience,” he said. “This is their moment during the week to be able to open up and share with people. We are still offering this during a really tough time because we are a community that really bonds together.”
Kevin A. Easley Jr. joined last year as a volunteer moderator so, actually, he has never led Bi-osphere or a Coming Out group meeting face-to-face.
“I was trained on Zoom—the first time my fellow moderators trained someone via the internet,” he explained. “I virtually shadowed the more experienced facilitators, observed how they led the group and what kind of questions they asked and how they asked them.”
Approximately 25 to 30 people attend the B-iosphere meetings; a smaller number for the Coming Out groups.
“I’m always excited when people find the 90 minutes to join,” he said. “As soon as the pandemic is over, I would love to facilitate my groups in person to finally meet some of those faces I’ve been seeing all this time in front of the camera.”
For more information about the Center’s Social Networking Groups, visit lalgbtcenter.org/groups