The faltering Diversity Center reveals the LGBT community’s political weakness
“Are you looking for the Diversity Center?” asked a woman, standing across Warren Street, of the person peering through the Center’s caged door. “Because it’s gone.”
It’s gone, all right. While there is a light on in the hallway and a banner still hangs from the building at 531 San Pedro, the door is padlocked and nobody is home.
|Its former space at 531 San Pedro is closed, but the Diversity Center is a “virtual” community center. An answering machine takes calls at 745-0384 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. (Photo by Lisa Sorg)|
Out of money and unable to pay the rent or insurance, the embattled Diversity Center closed last fall. Although it still exists as a “virtual community center,” says its president, Nathan Javine, there is no building, no computers, no staff, and its counseling center has moved far afield, to Wurzbach and I-10.
The demise of the Diversity Center points to a larger crisis within the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community: There is no unified political front to fight powerful, well-funded religious conservatives who are eroding the few rights the LGBT community has won since the late 1960s.
Observers within the LGBT community attribute the political anemia to apathy, factionalization, and the scarcity of openly gay, wealthy white men to kickstart a genuine movement beyond the bars and cocktail parties.
“The only leaders are the lesbians and drag queens,” says Sam Sanchez, who in late 2004 moved back to his native San Antonio after 30 years of working in corporate and gay media in New York, San Francisco, and Fort Lauderdale. He recently started a website, QSanAntonio.com, for the local LGBT community. “Gay society is politically invisible. There is not a critical mass of gay men willing to step forward.”
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While plenty of people need the Diversity Center’s services — AIDS counseling, GED classes, and social services — there are no deep pockets to support it. According to 2004 IRS documents, the Center generated $83,000 in revenue and spent $79,000, leaving $4,000 in the bank at the end of the year. In 2005, the Center lost essential funding, which signaled the beginning of its demise. Javine says the Center relied on private donations and $79,000 in grants from the state of Texas for domestic-violence counseling and $30,000 from Hope Action Care for AIDS counseling. The Center had to match $40,000 of the state’s amount. When the Center’s executive director, Don Jones, left in January 2005, Hope Action Care withdrew its grant. “That hurt us, because the money helped us cover our monthly expenses,” Javine says.
Moreover, the rotating crew of board members has contributed to inconsistent leadership. “It’s very difficult to find committed board members when the center is going through growing pains. And it’s drama-driven. If you don’t know how to deal with drama, then you won’t be able to serve on the board.”
Javine is looking for a space downtown, one that perhaps the Center could share with another non-profit agency. “The community we serve is hurt tremendously by us not having a building,” says Javine. For example, 16 people enrolled in the GED class, many of whom had to leave high school after being bullied because they are gay.
The Diversity Center has a long history of financial uncertainty and internal divisiveness. Mike McGowan, whose partner Byron Trott co-founded its predecessor, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, on North St. Mary’s Street, says the Center needs a benefactor to bankroll or donate space. “What’s it going to take? This community doesn’t seem to be ready for it. I’m not sure if a needs-oriented center fits the bill.”
In the late ’90s, political differences and strained relationships with some local lesbians divided the LGBT community. “There was no relationship between the GLCC and the Esperanza Center. We wanted to join the community and they have a multi-cultural, identity-politics approach,” says McGowan, a member of the Log Cabin Republicans. “We tried to reach out to the lesbian community, but we could never get them to fully participate.”
New leadership tried to mend those fences, but that estrangement continued as late as January 2004, when the Center’s treasurer, an African-American lesbian and single parent, Deb Martin, told the Current, “I feel that there is a lack of `programming` emphasis on people of color, on lesbians, on single moms.” `See “Resolutions of grandeur,” January 29-February 4, 2004.`
Javine replied that of the four current board members, two are lesbian single parents.
Graciela Sanchez, a lesbian and director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which combines culture with social justice and politics, says she felt frustrated that the GLCC didn’t understand the connection between sexuality, race, class, and overarching social-justice issues. “Homophobia has the same roots of oppression,” Sanchez says.
Moreover, several conservative members of the gay community supported the City’s defunding of Esperanza, further driving a wedge within the movement. And by hosting gay-lesbian film festivals, helping sponsor the Texas Lesbian Conference, and supporting media projects such as the Women’s Space newsletter, the Esperanza filled a niche the Diversity Center did not.
Javine says Espeeranza has “a totally differeent mission statement. They are about the arts.”
There are a few gay, white, and Out men who have emerged as political leaders. Dan Graney, a member and former co-chair of the Stonewall Democrats, says that San Antonio’s local LGBT community needs to be proactive in dealing with the Religious Right and raise political and voter awareness about social-justice issues. Yet, that large-scale leadership is conspicuously missing. “There are only a handful of people who are willing to do this, but we need more people in the LGBT community to step up and get involved.”
Graney says that compared to other major Texas cities, San Antonio is politically disorganized. In Houston, for example, the Equal Rights Alliance has generated a large voter database to help candidates’ campaigns. “That’s what we need in San Antonio. Who’s carrying the ball? Why aren’t rich gay folks taking the initiative?
Artist and activist Gene Elder considers the arts community as the most likely catalyst for social change. “It’s not the bankers, lawyers, or politicians who are willing to create change.”
Without a Center, it is difficult to build relationships between the LGBT community and local government, including the health department and police. The San Antonio Police Department has a LGBT liaison; however, the position is largely window dressing, as little outreach — in either direction — has occurred.
The LGBT community has factionalized to such an extent that the Pridefest celebration, once a show of unity, is now a demonstration of dissent. Last year, North Main Street bar owners held a block party and a splinter group moved its events from Crockett Park, which borders North Main, to Sunset Station on the east side of downtown. “We call it Pridefest because we want to show people who aren’t gay we are a social and economic force,” Sanchez says.
The future of the Diversity Center looks dim. There is little local money being funneled into LGBT-friendly social causes. And until factions within the LGBT community realize that infighting is usurping its political power, San Antonio will remain a difficult, if not oppressive place for gays and lesbians to live.
“Maybe it’s too much to hope for here,” Sanchez says. “San Antonio is the closet-queen capital of the world.” •
By Lisa Sorg