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Montrose Center’s 40th anniversary is a milestone for the entire community. 

By Marene Gustin

On June 25, 1978, near the close of Houston’s first Pride Month, LGBTQ advocates held Town Meeting I in the Astro Arena to chart the course of the community’s needs.

According to the Houston Chronicle, it was the first politically oriented homosexual meeting in the United States.

“We didn’t know that then,” says former mayor Annise Parker, who attended the meeting and serves as president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. “We always thought the East Coast and West Coast were so much ahead of us.”

Reports on attendance vary, but the crowd was likely in the thousands, and it included other notables such as Ray Hill, Phyllis Frye, Steve Shiflett, and many more. Former state representative and gubernatorial candidate Frances “Sissy” Farenthold gave the keynote speech, which helped generate media interest around the state.

“It was really a huge event,” Parker recalls. “People forget how different it was in the ’70s. To rent an arena and fill it with gay people was a huge thing.” And to do so in broad daylight with media attention was a first. “But I don’t remember any protesters,” says Parker. “If there were, they certainly didn’t make an impression on me.”

Emerging from that Town Meeting I were resolutions that would shape the LGBTQ community and lay the groundwork for support structures and protections for decades to come, including creation of the Montrose Counseling Center (now the Montrose Center), the Montrose Clinic (now Legacy Community Health), the Montrose Activity Center, the Hispanic Caucus, and the Montrose Sports Association.

“So it’s not just the 40th anniversary of the Montrose Center,” says Kent Loftin, the Center’s chief development officer. “It’s the 40th anniversary of our entire community.”

The Center will celebrate four decades of service to the LGBTQ community with a “Time Warp” party on May 12 at the Houston Room at the University of Houston. The event will feature drag sensation Miss Conception, vocalist and songwriter Eric Michael Krop, pop artist Abigail Zsiga, and the  musical duo Amy and Freddy. All proceeds will benefit the Center’s homeless youth services. Then on May 13, the Center will host a Mother’s Day Brunch featuring Sister Helen Holy.

Within months of Town Meeting I, the Montrose Counseling Center opened its doors in a two-room office at 900 Lovett Boulevard. Sharing the space on a part-time basis were four psychotherapists and psychiatrist John O’Donnell, who provided valuable clinical supervision and psychiatric backup. O’Donnell then became the clinic’s first clinical director, and Bill Scott served as administrative director.

“It was revolutionary,” Loftin says. “Offering real mental-health therapy to gays. At that time, there was ‘gay conversion therapy,’ but hardly anyone was treating the real needs of the community.”

In August 1979, the Montrose Counseling Center was listed for the first time in the directories of the Department of Health and Human Services, Harris County’s mental-health department, Traveler’s AID, and the United Way.

The Center’s first fundraiser was in 1979 at the old Shamrock Hilton Hotel. The Stella Scott Award was presented to recognize individuals in the community for their outstanding services to the Montrose Counseling Center.

The following year, the Center’s budget grew from $9,000 to $25,000 before doubling to $50,000 the next year as  more staff and services were added. By the early ’80s, expanded programs included an alcohol treatment program and HIV/AIDS testing and education. Ann J. Robison was hired as executive director in December 1988, and the Center created an endowment to promote long-term financial stability for the agency and its programs.The budget that year was $355,743. During Dr. Robison’s 30-year tenure, the budget has grown to just over $6 million.

“I answered a blind ad in the Chronicle,” Robison recalls. “I kind of knew it was for the Montrose Counseling Center, the way it was described.” But what she didn’t know was that she’d be there three decades.

“I’m 61 now, so someday I will retire, but I have no plans to right now,” she says.

With a doctorate from the University of Texas School of Public Health, Robison has led the nonprofit through two moves and a major expansion  of  both staff and services. Also during her tenure, the Montrose Counseling Center rescued two struggling organizations—a 24-hour crisis hotline (the LGBT Switchboard) and the oldest LGBT youth organization in Texas (Hatch Youth)—by bringing them under the Center’s wing and providing the infrastructure needed for them to thrive.

“We became a leader in HIV outreach, not just in Houston but in Texas,” Robison says. In 1994, the Center added Texas’ first domestic violence/sexual assault/hate crimes/trafficking services specifically for LGBTQ survivors.

“We had a client come in who had been set on fire,” she says. “It seemed important that we provide case management and counseling services for LGBTQ victims, most of whom had nowhere else to go.” The Center continues to offer limited temporary housing for victims of domestic violence.

In 2005, Robison started yet another new program after securing a grant for LGBTQ seniors.

“So many seniors were being priced out of their homes in Montrose,” she says. “And if they had to give up driving and weren’t familiar with the public transportation services, they just became isolated. We wanted to supply mental-health and support services and a meal program.” And last year, the Center kicked off its campaign, known as There’s No Place Like Home, to build the first LGBTQ-affirming senior housing project in the South that will incorporate all of the Center’s senior programs. Also last year, the Center created a Hurricane Harvey LGBTQ Disaster Relief fund that garnered national headlines.

In 2015, the Center shortened its name to the Montrose Center to convey that it does more than just counseling. Today the agency resides at 401 Branard Street in a two-story office structure that houses its main programs, plus several other nonprofits and community-meeting rental space. There’s even a café, the Equal Grounds Café and Snacketeria.

“We put it in about two years ago,” Robison says. “Our reception area is on the second floor with our offices, but we wanted something on the ground level where volunteers could greet people. It breaks even.”

Currently, Robison and the Center are working on a social-services program for veterans. The center just received its first grant for LGBTQ veterans, many of whom aren’t qualified to be treated at the VA Hospital or simply don’t feel comfortable there.

Understandably, Robison is proud.

“Our stability and the breadth and depth of our services amazes me,” she says. “We have people come from all over, because there just aren’t services like this for LGBTQ people in most of the South.”

What: The Montrose Center’s Time Warp 40th Anniversary Celebration
When: VIP reception at 6:30 p.m., show begins at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 12
Where: The Houston Room at the University of Houston
Tickets and more info: tinyurl.com/montroseenter40 

This article appears in the May 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.
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