Queer therapy nonprofit marks 10 years of service

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday May 25, 2022
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John Ross Thomas, left, a Queer LifeSpace volunteer and florist for the event, joined honoree Juanita MORE!, QLS Executive Director Ryan MacCarrigan, and QLS co-founder Chris Holleran at the organization's May 7 gala. Photo: Gooch<br>
John Ross Thomas, left, a Queer LifeSpace volunteer and florist for the event, joined honoree Juanita MORE!, QLS Executive Director Ryan MacCarrigan, and QLS co-founder Chris Holleran at the organization's May 7 gala. Photo: Gooch

After being delayed by a year due to the COVID pandemic, San Francisco's LGBTQ community recently came out to support mental health services as the nonprofit Queer LifeSpace celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The gala, held May 7, also premiered the organization's new Emerging Queer Artists in Their Youth program, EQUARTY, with a silent auction of 13 works from seven emerging artists.

The organization's executive director, Ryan MacCarrigan, told the Bay Area Reporter the event raised close to $40,000 for the San Francisco LGBTQ mental health and substance abuse services organization. About 150 people attended the outdoor daytime reception in Lower Nob Hill while another 100 people who could not attend nevertheless made donations.

The funds will help QLS's 163 clients and work toward expanding the organization's in-person and virtual counseling services. Currently, QLS operates with a budget of more than $225,000, MacCarrigan told the B.A.R. A gay technology executive who moved from board member to lead the organization in 2021, MacCarrigan, 37, said that the organization's current operating budget was up by more than $92,000 from its IRS 990 form filed in 2020.

QLS currently has one full-time clinical director, said co-founding member Chris Holleran, a 43-year-old gay man who oversees one part-time staff member and up to 10 clinician trainees. MacCarrigan, who is bringing his skills from the tech sector to the organization, said he's looking to double the training program by bringing on another clinical director to support another 10 clinical trainees, among other plans to rebrand and expand services.

"We feel that we're entering a new chapter at Queer LifeSpace," MacCarrigan said. "We have done a lot in the last 10 years with the resources that we've had but we want to do so much more. We really need this next chapter in the evolution of the organization."

MacCarrigan is the organization's third executive director. He succeeded Sarah Soul, who left in 2019, according to her LinkedIn profile. MacCarrigan, a QLS board member for two years, moved into the role of executive director in the fall of 2021.

"I realize how perfect this is for me because of my own relationship with mental health issues," he said about taking the helm of QLS.


One goal of the recent benefit was to promote EQUARTY. It supports San Francisco Bay Area up-and-coming young LGBTQ artists (18 to 30 years old) from disadvantaged and underserved backgrounds who lack access to mental health and substance abuse services, according to a news release.

MacCarrigan said 100% of the proceeds from the auction went to the artists, who were excited to see their work on display and being bid on.

Wensley Pasion, a 21-year-old Filipino American gay man, the oldest of his three siblings, told the B.A.R. that he felt ashamed of himself growing up. Art was his place of healing. Then the pandemic hit. He went through a process and last year came out to his family, who embraced him.

His mother, Wilma Pasion, flew out from Hawaii to see his very first show at the gala, which displayed six of his pieces. She said she was "so proud of him."

The works of oils on canvas and the two oils on cardboard symbolized his emotional process, a "reflection" of accepting himself, Wensley Pasion said.

"The pandemic, too, made me realize like, if I'm not like, truly living my best, my true self like, what is this all for?" he said. "It was very healing for me to finally say, 'I give myself permission to be myself now.'"

Second-generation Gujarati American lesbian printmaker Karishma Johnson, 23, who is gender-nonconforming and uses all pronouns, had a piece on display that is the second exhibit of her work that is currently being shown in San Francisco, she said.

Johnson's piece at the QLS gala, "The Goddess (Sweet Tomatoes), 2021," a linocut print, oil-based relief ink, depicts a happy ending for her lesbian goddess who falls in love with one of her worshipers, the Bay Area native explained.

The work is one piece from her "The Goddess" series. It is her effort to reinfuse queerness into Hinduism that was erased during the British colonial period in India, she said.

"I said, 'OK, well, that's kind of disappointing. Let me reinvent that,'" Johnson said, laughing. "Basically, I just wanted a lesbian goddess to get a happy ending."

Johnson said it was "so crucial" that QLS existed, talking about her own challenges finding a therapist who understood her as a queer woman of color. She said many therapists "don't understand specific like cultural issues, especially with queerness.

"I think it's great what they're doing here. It's amazing, actually," she added.

The printmaker's work can also be seen at Strut, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's health center in the Castro, as a part of the Queer Ancestors Project.

The show was exciting for the artists and validated them, they said.

Conceived in 2021, EQUARTY aims to provide local queer artists with access to individual and group therapy, and connections to career development resources so that they can continue to invest in their work without sacrificing their mental health needs, according to the release.

Looking back

QLS opened nine months after the shocking closure in 2010 of longtime queer mental health and social services provider New Leaf: Services for Our Community.

Nancy Heilner, the organization's first executive director, co-founded QLS, the nonprofit arm of the San Francisco Therapy Collective, alongside fellow therapists Holleran, Stacey Rodgers, and Joe Voors in 2011.

Heilner and Holleran told the gala audience many local mental health and nonprofit professionals discouraged them from founding QLS a decade ago.

"People told me no. San Francisco doesn't need another nonprofit. There's plenty of services for the queer community, don't bother," Heilner, a 66-year-old lesbian therapist who stepped down from leading the organization and moved to New Orleans five years ago, told the audience.

"We decided to start Queer LifeSpace anyway," she said.

The collective seeded the new organization with $25,000 in funding from client fees and about $20,000 of in-kind donations. QLS opened its doors in July 2011, the B.A.R. previously reported.

"San Francisco actually did need Queer LifeSpace [and] the services that we wanted to offer to the community," said Heilner, who returned to San Francisco to mark the anniversary.

During the decade, QLS has trained more than 100 therapists, has seen more than 1,700 clients, and done just over 40,000 sessions, MacCarrigan told the B.A.R.

Speaking with the B.A.R., Holleran reflected on the early days of the organization's founding and some of the challenges it faced, such as losing its office space when the AIDS foundation took over the entire building that housed its offices in 2013.

While there was a little sparing between the organizations, in the end, QLS found its current home at 2275 Market Street. The move, for which SFAF helped QLS to fund with a grant, allowed it to expand its services, Holleran added. SFAF said it did not have a record of the grant assistance beyond what Holleran said.

"We were naive in a lot of ways back then," Holleran said. "I didn't think we would make it 10 years."

Holleran noted the organization doesn't take any city contracts or funding. QLS relies solely on donations and fundraising. That model allows it to "provide more client-centered services," he said.

Heilner told the audience the pandemic "really exemplifies or emphasizes the isolation that so many people were experiencing even pre-pandemic," adding that QLS has been able to "break down some of those barriers and reach out to people."

"The pandemic has been really stressful, but one wonderful thing that's come out of it is being able to communicate with so many people virtually," said Heilner, noting her ability to stay connected and continue volunteering with QLS because of technology.

Technology also presented other opportunities to the organization, allowing it to launch a rural outreach program.

"I think the pandemic has exemplified how easy it is for people to connect virtually," she said. "Right now, Queer LifeSpace is reaching out to people all over California" and providing them with services.

Holleran told the audience the importance of mental health services is that "there's no end goal. We're always going to need these services."

"One thing that I think the pandemic has really highlighted is our ability as a community to adapt and survive. It's what we've done as a community, through generations, it's what we're doing now," he said. "It's just really inspiring to be here. It's really inspiring to feel the strength of the community — kind of reinvigorates the work that we do.

"I feel very proud that we've been here for 10 years," Holleran added.


The event was emceed by Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and drag artist Juanita MORE!

Drag artists Rahni NothingMore, Dulce De Leche, and Fauxnique from the House of MORE! entertained guests as they dined and drank.

QLS leaders gave out Friend of Queer LifeSpace awards to Grassroots Gay Rights Foundation and James Saliba for their donor support. Saliba wasn't in attendance at the gala.

Andrew Roseman, board secretary of Grassroots Gay Rights Foundation, accepted the award. It had donated an additional $10,000 from surplus funds beyond the initial grant it awarded the organization last year.

"We are very happy to reach out to Queer LifeSpace and offer the additional grant," Roseman told guests as he accepted the award. "Our members are extremely happy to do so, and we couldn't be happier for the work that they do."

The grant allowed Queer LifeSpace to provide more than 300 individual therapy sessions at $30 per session, MacCarrigan told the audience.

MORE! was honored for her community support and Charlotte Tate was honored for her volunteer work at the organization.

Proud to support

Darla Donahue, a 56-year-old bisexual transgender woman who works in technology, said it was important to her to support QLS because of the number of LGBTQ people who suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues.

"As a successful trans person, it's my responsibility to the community to reach out to organizations like this and give back some of the support that I've gotten," she said.

Nonbinary activist Alex U. Inn, who was involved with QLS at its founding, called the organization "heaven-sent." They told the B.A.R. they wished there were "100 of them."

"Mental health is real," they said, especially for people in need of support just surviving the pandemic. "It is one of the few mental health organizations that are really targeted at our queer and non-binary communities."

To donate to Queer LifeSpace, click here.

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