A Sense of Place: We Belong

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Since I began at the Center on January 4, 1993, I’ve always loved coming to work.  I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be employed by an organization that is making an amazing difference in so many lives. For the last few months, however, I’ve felt especially grateful and proud as I arrive at our beautiful new Anita May Rosenstein Campus. This Campus is a testament to the thousands of people who have worked at and supported the Center over the last half century—a product of their dedication and a shared belief that, by helping people, we can change the world.

As I reflect on how this new building makes me feel, I have come to an explicit understanding of something I’m certain has been implicit since the moment I first walked through the doors of this organization nearly 27 years ago. This building is only a physical manifestation of the people and the work that goes on inside it. It represents something far more meaningful and important than a beautiful combination of concrete, glass, and plaster: it is imbued with the heart and soul of what we do and the people we serve.

I also realize that each Center building—from Boyle Heights to West Hollywood and everywhere in between—gives us a sense of place, a feeling that we belong in the world. And for LGBT people, in particular, it means much more. For many of us who have been cast out from or unwelcome in so many places in our past, this sense of place is a long-deferred but richly deserved gift.

At the Center, we know this from our history and our personal experiences. You can see in the old photographs that the founders were clearly bursting with pride when they rented that dilapidated house on Wilshire Boulevard in the early ‘70s and hung the sign that said “Gay Community Services Center” on the porch railing.

You can hear it in the memories of some of our longtime board members, who remember the first time they entered the recently purchased and renovated headquarters building on Hudson Avenue (now Schrader Boulevard) in the early 1990s. They still recall the way they felt walking into the lobby or through the corridors of the Jeffrey Goodman Special Care Clinic, remarking to each other that never again did our clients have to feel like second-class citizens when they came to access health care or other services. For a community under siege from the AIDS epidemic, the solace and comfort offered by the very existence of that building was a salve for so many of us.

In 1998, I witnessed it myself when we opened The Village at Ed Gould Plaza. As the Center’s leader, I had, of course, been deeply involved in raising the money and working on the plans for the new facility. It was a big deal! And even though I was quite moved by the realization of this dream, I was not prepared for the emotional power that the building carried for people who were far less involved in the process. People would simply walk into the courtyard at the opening celebration and burst into tears. Again, the very existence of The Village            tapped into some primordial feeling that we as LGBT people yearned for and shared: we belong.

How is it that the soul and spirit of a community of people can find form in an inanimate object like a building? How do years of struggle and victories and defeats get transmuted into the places where we live, work, and play? People who know me will tell you that I’m a   very analytical person—no doubt partially a function of my training as a lawyer. So, to be honest, I don’t have a scientific answer to these questions. Nonetheless, I am quite certain that these new Campus buildings will be imbued with the same vision of love and justice that has defined our Center for the last 50 years.

How do I know this?

I know this because I’ve seen it so many times before. I’ve watched as two middle-aged lesbians danced to mariachi music at our opening celebration of Mi Centro in Boyle Heights, absolutely joyous in their feeling of acceptance and pride in this space that was created for them. I know this because I watched the almost incredulous pride on the faces of people at the grand opening of our Trans Wellness Center, the nation’s first center of its kind. I know this because all those years I worked in the McDonald/Wright Building on Schrader Boulevard, clients would stop me in the hallways to thank me for the Center—their Center—and politicians on tours would comment on how happy the staff who worked in that building always seemed to be.

It may be something of a truism that people are the lifeblood of buildings like ours. But I have come to believe that these buildings—by giving us a safe, welcoming, loving place to be—are more than just cold, inanimate shells for our daily work. They give us a sense of belonging to something bigger than we are as individuals. And long after we are gone, this sense of place will connect all of us who have helped build this organization—staff, clients, volunteers, donors, and friends—to new generations of queer people by providing a concrete link to our shared culture and history. This Campus will stand as a powerful reminder of what can be accomplished when a generous, determined, courageous, and resilient people come together to build community.

 

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