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LGBTQ Center to Open in Oakland

by Michael Nugent

Joe Hawkins, left, and Jeff Myers talked about the Oakland LGBT Community Center, which will open ahead of the city's Pride festivities next month.
Joe Hawkins, left, and Jeff Myers talked about the Oakland LGBT Community Center, which will open ahead of the city's Pride festivities next month.   (Source:Michael Nugent )

There are an estimated 25 LGBTQ community centers in California, but Oakland has been the only major city in the state without one - until now.

Oakland's first-ever LGBTQ Community Center is scheduled to open September 7, just days before the annual Oakland Pride parade and festival.

The center is located in the offices of Startup Admin Co-Munity, which is above a mobile phone store at 3207 Lakeshore Avenue, in a large, sunlit space overlooking the bustling commercial intersection of Lakeshore and Lake Park avenues. Founders Jeff Myers and Joe Hawkins, both gay men, sat in the future multi-purpose room of the new center and talked about their plans.

"Considering the high cost of rents, we were very fortunate to have stumbled upon this place to get us started and to work with such a welcoming operator," said Hawkins. "We are also excited about the Lake Merritt area location. In 1989, this was the black gay neighborhood. Now it's more diverse than ever."

The center is located in District 2, which is represented by Oakland City Councilman Abel Guillen, who identifies as two spirit.

Co-Munity offers startups services, with the goal of building a successful organization and expanding, according to a news release from Hawkins and Myers.

The number of LGBT centers in California has held steady at 26 in recent years, according to CenterLink, an association of LGBT centers. But the LGBT center in Fresno closed last month (see related story), dropping the number to 25, not counting Oakland, which has yet to be listed.

Before starting the Oakland LGBT Community Center, Hawkins was a founding member of Oakland Pride. He has also led projects on a range of issues, including housing and homelessness, youth workforce development and training, HIV/AIDS, and social justice issues affecting marginalized communities.

Myers is a former union vice president who met Hawkins while he was serving as the volunteer coordinator at Oakland Pride.

The 2016 presidential election motivated Hawkins and Myers to take action.

"So many of us were anxious about what is next and where do we go from here," Hawkins said. "Talk of opening a center had been on the table since we included it in the mission statement of Oakland Pride over eight years ago, but discussions between Jeff and I accelerated after the elections. It was just the kick in the butt that we needed to get the ball rolling."

In fact, one of Oakland Pride's goals for many years was to raise enough money from the annual event to open a community center. But that hasn't happened. Revenue from the Pride events has remained flat, with no funds set aside for a center. Up until 2015 Oakland Pride was running a deficit.

Financial Support

Rent is $5,000 per month, Hawkins said. In July, Myers set up a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $50,000. As of last week, it had yet to receive any donations and now redirects to a donation page for the center, which accepts credit cards and PayPal.

"We have raised about $1,500 so far via PayPal," Hawkins said last week.

Hawkins said the organization is all-volunteer run; neither he nor Myers are taking a salary.

"We are funding the effort ourselves from our own pockets but are in urgent need of financial support," Hawkins said.

He said that he is applying for multiple grants to cover general operations and hopes to get funding to allow his position to be paid part-time, along with a paid part-time volunteer coordinator.

Hawkins and Myers said that community support is essential in making the Oakland center a success.

"We are actively fundraising for the center, and although we are seeking grants, we need a diverse stream of funding to make this work, and that means donations from our LGBTQ community and allies," Myers said.

Added Hawkins, "This is really challenging financially. This is the time when this is needed, especially with hate crimes up, we need a message that we're not going anywhere."

According to the state attorney general's 2016 report that was issued in July, hate crimes based on the victim's sexual orientation were up by 10 percent between 2015 and 2016, as the Bay Area Reporter recently noted.

In terms of city help, Guillen has pledged $1,000, Hawkins said.

In an email, Guillen confirmed the donation, noting the money will come from his officeholder account.

Guillen said he is "looking forward to welcoming" the center to the neighborhood, and he also cited the change in political climate as a reason for the community to have a meeting space.

"The cruel, deliberate, and misguided attacks from the Trump administration against the LGBTQ community nationwide underscore the need for - and the essential value of - an LGBTQ center in Oakland," he said in an email.

According to its website, the Oakland center is seeking interested community members to help plan services for health, trans people, families, and youth. Initially, the center will be open Friday nights and Saturdays for group meetings.

Myers is president of the board. Other board members are John T. Hansen, Reality Relliford, and Michael Rood.

While Hawkins and Myers both have past connections with Oakland Pride, they have started the new center on their own.

"This is not Oakland Pride; they're not funding it. Hope they will be able to help. We want to work with them and hope Oakland Pride wants to make a formal relationship," said Hawkins.

While the city has not yet been involved, aside from Guillen's support, Hawkins said that is the goal.

"The community needs that," he said.

"The local LGBTQ community needs a physical space in which to gather and share resources. This marginalized community - the LGBTQ community, and especially LGBTQ people of color, youth, seniors, and transgender individuals - it's really important for all of us to be united and to be able to support each other, and we believe that this new center is the missing link that will facilitate that," Myers said.

Lesbian City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan (at-large) did not respond to a request for comment.

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