Most LGBT centers go virtual

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 25, 2020
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The Pacific Center in Berkeley is one of several local LGBT community centers that have moved most programming online. Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia
The Pacific Center in Berkeley is one of several local LGBT community centers that have moved most programming online. Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia

Meant as welcoming respites offering social connections and myriad services, LGBT community centers across the country have closed their physical doors in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, they haven't shuttered completely.

Their staffs are resorting to online tools to hold therapy sessions with clients and host group hangouts. Others are making phone calls to check in with people they would normally see face-to-face.

Solano Pride Center Executive Director Jonathan Cook, left, and board President Thomas Bilbo. Photo: Courtesy Solano Pride Center.  

"We are still providing most of our services but mostly virtual," said Jonathan Cook, executive director of the Solano Pride Center in Fairfield, California, which closed its offices last Wednesday, March 18, and hopes to reopen Monday, April 6.

Although the center has canceled for now its peer groups and community events through the end of the month, it is still providing counseling services remotely and resorted to holding its youth group meeting via Google Hangout. It also suspended its senior lunch program, which was set to expand this month, but is calling the participants at least once a week.

"It has been good to maintain these services. It's important to me we have continuity of care," said Cook, who is working remotely from his home in Fairfield for the time being. "For marginalized communities and folks already isolated, social distancing and staying at home can be more challenging I think than for the regular population. Mental health is an important part of the work we do."

For Fairfield resident Terry Murray, 71, a feminist lesbian, the phone check-ins with the center staff offer her some social connection while she hunkers down at home. She began attending its senior programs about a year ago and is a regular participant of the twice-monthly lunches.

"Right at this point of time I am a single person and live by myself. Although I feel very comfortable by my own skin in that I am an extrovert and get energy being with people, the texting check-in is not like being person to person. But it does give me a sense of having human beings around," Murray said of being able to talk with center staffers. "Last week, I returned a text and had a phone call. It was about five minutes at most, so not long but it was nice to hear someone's voice."

Felix Duley, 17, a senior in high school, is a volunteer facilitator of the center's new Asterisk Group for transgender and nonbinary youth age 13 to 18 and their allies. Its first meeting on March 12 drew nine attendees, he said.

A transgender teen who lives in Fairfield, Duley has been trying to figure out how to conduct meetings online and ensure his peers know how to join in. He told the Bay Area Reporter Tuesday that he was "cautiously optimistic" the second meeting would take place online Thursday evening.

"Most of last week we were figuring out how to let people know what is going on," said Duley, who started attending the center's youth programs last year.

The center continuing to provide LGBT youth services at this time is particularly important in a more rural area of the Bay Area like Solano County, noted Duley, where there are few other options.

"Especially with the closure of the schools, which sometimes I hate to say it can be the only comfortable space for LGBT students to be, so now you have these students uprooted from a situation helping them keep their bearings it is helpful to have some kind of system to provide them any relief," said Duley, who has been sheltering at home with his siblings and parents. "In Fairfield or Solano County there aren't many resources, especially for youth who are struggling because they are LGBT. Even providing any sort of help to face such adversity is really, really important."

Murray, a retired public school teacher who now teaches an online college course for people studying to become teachers, does have her dog and rescue cats to keep her company, as well as neighbors she can talk to from a safe distance. With all of her social activities on hold, she resorted to going for drives to take photos.

"My social life has imploded," said Murray, noting other seniors aren't able to leave their house like she can. "Some people are pretty shut in. I really applaud the center for keeping it open to the point they have. Some people would just go absolutely crazy if they didn't."

LGBT centers pivot services
The Rainbow Community Center in Concord and the Pacific Center for Human Growth in Berkeley are both offering counseling and support services via online platforms. The Berkeley LGBT center said this week that it would offer three free sessions with a therapist for those people who have been financially impacted because of the coronavirus outbreak.

"If you are in a position to give, we invite you to sponsor a free therapy session for a Pacific Center client by making a donation of $45 today. 100% of your donation will go towards supporting clients in our mental health clinic," wrote Executive Director Michelle Gonzalez in an email to the center's supporters.

The San Mateo County Pride Center has also moved most of its programs online and is conducting counseling sessions through telehealth platforms. It has advised users of its services to check its various social media accounts to stay up to date on its virtual programming.

The San Francisco LGBT Community Center is offering its employment services for job seekers via online appointments. A sign on its front door notes it plans to be closed through April 7, while its nonprofit tenants like Bay Area Legal Aid and the San Francisco Community Health Center, which operates a health clinic in the building, are also closed but can be reached by phone for those needing emergency assistance.

Other LGBT centers have either kept a skeletal crew on site to offer limited services, such as the San Diego LGBT Community Center, or are operating as best they can while taking precautionary measures to protect the health of employees and clients.

The Los Angeles LGBT Center, the state's largest such facility, can't completely shut down or go virtual because it provides health care services, as well as housing for seniors and youth, explained chief of staff Darrel Cummings.

"It is disheartening, but I think most people are making the best decisions for their community and for their centers," said Cummings of seeing so many of the facilities go dark. "I've talked to a variety of them and shared with them what we are doing. What we have been trying to do is reduce the numbers of people — both staff and clients — in any physical space we have. We are doing that so we can preserve our most critical services that need in-person contact."

Cummings told the B.A.R. that he has been on-site day and night while he has sent many of the center's 800 employees home to work remotely. Many clients have been shifted to telehealth platforms and pharmacy patients are being urged to sign up for mail delivery.

"We are repurposing our staff to meet the most critical needs," he said. "We are trying to handle everything else on online platforms or telephonically."

With fundraising events postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, LGBT centers are scrambling to continue to raise money. They have created special emergency funds and are pressing for financial assistance from government sources. CenterLink, the affinity group for LGBT centers, was one of the signatories to a letter beseeching Congress to fund LGBTQ centers and nonprofits.

"I have been touched to see community centers across the nation stepping up during this difficult time to continue to offer support to the LGBTQ+ community and beyond," wrote Tanya Tassi, policy manager for ActionLink: The Center Action Network, in an email sent out last week. "They're seeing an increase in demand because people are finding themselves in situations where their employment is jeopardized due to facility closures or lack of available childcare, and their access to necessities is compromised. As during any time of crisis, the LGBTQ+ community will come together and serve the needs of the community."

At the Solano center, the staff continues to be paid since they are working from home. It can weather the disruption to its operations for the time being, said Cook, but would be in a precarious situation if its funding from Solano County or its larger donors were to be drastically cut in light of the current crisis.

How the community is coming together to support each other is reminiscent of how people responded to the AIDS crisis, said Cook.

"There is going to be anxiety and fear about the unknown but making sure we are coming from a place of love and community rather than fear is going to help sustain us through this crisis," he said.