Houston’s GLBT Community Center proudly celebrates its 15th anniversary.
by Brandon Wolf • Photo by Maria Heg/MECA
She’s a stylish and decidely queer diva—with big hair, miniskirt, boots, and a wasp waist. One wonders for a moment if she’s an unknown runaway from Yellow Submarine. Big on attitude, she carries a silver tray with a cupcake that reads 15. Her name is Crystal, and she’s the official graphic icon created by Houston artist Randall Jobe to celebrate the 15th (crystal) anniversary of the Houston GLBT Community Center.
“March 22, 1996, is the official date of the founding of the Center,” says Tim Brookover, current president. “That was the date the papers were filed with the state and the IRS. We are celebrating the 15th anniversary all year long.” Part of that celebration is the Center’s role as the 2011 Organization Pride Marshal for the Parade. “The Center is very honored to have been chosen by the community for this tribute,” says Brookover.
Third Time’s the Charm
“The Community Center is at least the third effort by Houston’s GLBT community to create a center,” Brookover explains. “There was an attempt in the late 1970s, and another in the late 1980s. Both, ironically, were called the Montrose Activity Center, but were not related in any way.
“Neither one lasted long,” say Brookover. “It was the same thing all organizations struggle with—lack of money, volunteers, and interest.”
In 1996, a group of concerned activists began to meet at the Montrose branch of the Houston Public Library to once again attempt to form a community center. By March of that year, they formed a legal entity named the Houston Gay & Lesbian Community Center. According to official public documents filed with the county and the state, those activists included Walt Duffey, Brian J. Tognotti, Shawn Webb, Dewayne Ross, Russ Jenkins, and Burton Bagby-Grose.
The Center found its first home at 803 Hawthorne Avenue, a charming Montrose historic structure, in March 1998. In early 2003, it relocated to a second-floor suite in the 3400 Montrose Building. During that same year, the name and mission statement were changed to include bisexual and transgender people.
An Historic Move
Then in October 2010, the Center moved to the historic Dow School at 1900 Kane in the Old Sixth Ward Historic District. The move puts the Center close to the revitalized Washington Avenue area, and is convenient to multiple METRO lines as well as the new Washington Wave Jitney and the Range-Extended Electric Vehicle (REV) Eco-Shuttle.
The Dow School is listed in both the National Register and the City of Houston’s Register of Historic Places. The school served neighborhood children for 80 years between 1912 and 1992, and was one of the first schools in the Houston area to integrate children of different races and cultures.
By 1993, the school was in dire need of renovation, and the Dow School Renovation Project was created around the same time that the Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA) group moved into the building. With the assistance of the Old Sixth Ward Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) and the City of Houston, MECA was able to purchase the building in early 2004, and began the process of restoring this historic landmark.
Now a renter in the Dow School, the Houston GLBT Community Center’s space includes a sitting area, a meeting area with conference table, and an office area. A large rack for flyers displays myriad publicity and informational materials from Houston’s GLBT organizations and other groups who are supportive of the community.
Large blackboards allow publicity space for organizations and events. Posters and flyers are taped to the walls. The Center has a warm, cozy, inviting atmosphere.
Giant windows on one side of the space look out on the beautiful grounds of the Dow School.
The Center’s Mission
The Community Center exists “to empower, educate, and nurture individuals of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, generating a sense of community by providing for their social, emotional, and physical well being.” Programs are either organized by the Center or by other individuals or groups who want to offer them through the Center.
Additionally, the Center sponsors a Schools Program, which raises scholarship money for local LGBT youth. The Scholarship Fund is named after John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner, the two Houston gay men whose Supreme Court challenge in 2003 nullified all sodomy laws in the United States.
“We keep in touch with officers of the local Gay-Straight Alliances at area schools,” Brookover explains. “We award the scholarship each year on the anniversary of the Lawrence & Garner vs. Texas decision, June 27. The First Saturday Queer Bingo at the Center raises funds for the scholarship.”
Brookover estimates that over a hundred different programs have been offered through the Center over the last decade and a half, and over 150 different groups have used the Center’s meeting space.
Some of the currently popular Center programs include the HIV Support Group, Center Seniors and Friends Potluck,
Community Leaders Networking Group, and the Center Energy Exercise Class. Houston artist Kermit Eisenhut offers
free weekly art classes from May through August for people living with HIV/AIDS and cancer-related conditions. A full
list of Center programs is available on the Center’s website at www.houstonglbtcommunitycenter.org.
The Center offers affordable meeting space to a large number of Houston organizations. The diverse list includes Team Houston, the Houston Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and the Aaron Scheerhoorn Foundation for Change.
The Center Triangle Society is a means for supporting the efforts of the Center, which is funded through private donations, rental fees, and fundraising events. An all-volunteer staff runs the operations of the Center. “We’re always looking for more volunteers!” says Brookover.
The Realities of an LGBT Community Center
“Houston and Dallas have the last two surviving community centers in Texas,” says Brookover. “Centers in Austin, San Antonio, Waco, El Paso, and Lubbock are now gone.
“I’m often asked ‘why’ questions,” Brookover says. “Why isn’t the center bigger? Why isn’t it prettier? Why isn’t it open with regular hours throughout the week? Why isn’t there a paid staff?
“When people compare Houston’s center with those in Chicago, New York, Dallas, or San Francisco, the Houston center fades in their shadows,” he continues. “The main reason some cities have impressive centers is that they already had centers operating when the AIDS crisis hit. And the groups that sprang up to respond to AIDS attached themselves to the community centers.
“As the AIDS groups grew, the centers grew with them. Then other community health organizations became part of the community centers, and the growth also helped the growth of the centers. But in Houston, we had no operational community center, and so the health-related groups sprang up independently. Today, these health organizations are the most financially stable organizations in Houston.”
The last 15 years, however, have proven that Houston’s LGBT community needs a center—and that’s why the hard-working volunteers at the Houston GLBT Community Center continue their work to maintain momentum. Readers interested in volunteering should call 713/524-3818.
The Center’s Goals
• serve as an affordable, accessible facilityin which to hold meetings and events
• enable organizations to form, grow,and thrive
• be a clearinghouse of information oncommunity organizations and services
• provide office space to organizationsand businesses
• offer a place for socializing in a positiveenvironment
• host informational and educationaldiscussions on relevant issues
• offer a venue for the arts and cultural expression
• promote diversity, dialogue, and collaboration among different aspects of the community.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.