Does Austin Need an LGBTQ Center?

A look at the city's lack of a queer community hub

Austin, arguably Texas’ most queer-friendly city, has long been a safe haven for people from all walks of life. Yet, despite the city’s thriving queer community, Austin hasn’t housed a proper LGBTQ Center in over two decades.

The histories of queer communities across the country are diverse, but many major metropolitan areas house LGBTQ Centers that connect individuals to the greater community as well as resources they might be in need of – such as HIV support, case management, mental health services, and queer-friendly job listings. They also provide a safe gathering space and often feature local LGBTQ+ artists.

2017 Austin Pride celebration (Photo by Jana Birchum)

But despite plenty of attempts to create one, Austin still does not have a center. As it turns out, efforts have been made to fundraise for one on multiple occasions, and a few even got off the ground. In 1996, Cornerstone – the city’s last center – opened its doors. The space housed the queer-friendly Metropolitan Community Church of Austin and queer youth organization Out Youth. Originally, the plan was to provide space for other nonprofits as well as host parties and events for the queer community. That vision was never fully realized, as Cornerstone closed just a year later.

Carrie Bills, one of Cornerstone’s founding members, recalls their fundraising efforts starting off strong, but says it just “petered out from lack of support.” She concludes, “It was difficult to get people together, to keep it up. And eventually it just, sadly, had to go.”

In July 1997, the Chronicle documented Cornerstone’s monetary decline, citing how insufficient community donations and an inability to rely on city government support prevented the space from growing its revenue stream. Though, even at the time, the author noted, it was unclear whether dwindling donations were a result of lack of outreach or a lack of interest from the community. Gail Goodman, Out Youth’s former executive director said she loved the effort, but ultimately wonders if it “left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth” when Cornerstone didn’t thrive. Regardless, a center has not opened its doors since.

Carrie Bills (left), today, with her wife and dog (Photo provided by Carrie Bills)

Bills and others think this is likely because Austin lacks a dominantly queer neighborhood – a gayborhood if you will. Gayborhoods formed across the U.S. during times of great crises for the LGBTQ community – when queer people were denied access to well-paying jobs, safety, and healthcare. Many community centers arose within these neighborhoods, particularly during the Eighties AIDS crisis. Austin’s exponential growth, however, didn’t begin until the mid 2000s, long after these crises had softened (or at the very least evolved into more subtle issues of neglect and homophobia). Bills believes it’s possible that a gayborhood was never necessary in Austin, and therefore a center never had a place to put down roots. LGBTQ Quality of Life Advisory Commission Chair Victor Martinez says Austin is “very diverse” noting that LGBTQ people live “everywhere, do everything." As he sees it, "I don’t think Austin has felt a need to have a community center.”

The lack of a queer neighborhood not only means there has never really been a centralized push for a center, but also that any center that might be established now will likely be difficult to access for some members of Austin’s LGBTQ community. As the city grows so does its sprawl, yet it lacks a reliable public transportation system. Finding a location to put a community hub can prove quite difficult within these dynamics. But, both Bills and Goodman say traffic and travel wasn’t an issue during Cornerstone’s time – Austin wasn’t as populated and traffic wasn’t as much of an obstruction. Instead, Bills believes Cornerstone died out due to a lack of support. “I think if [the community] felt a real need for it, it would have stayed. I think there’s a lack of need.”

Over the years, smaller nonprofits have cropped up to fill specific roles that a community center might have otherwise taken on. Out Youth works as a hub for Central Texas’ LGBTQ youth, while allgo specifically caters to queer people of color. The LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, Austin Pride, Black Pride, the Kind Clinic, and Waterloo Counseling Center (to name a few) provide Austin’s queer community with localized and thoughtful support. Goodman wonders if this abundance of resources might be because Austin lacks a community center (though cities like San Francisco and New York have centers and numerous LGBTQ-centered organizations). However, it’s worth questioning: With such well-trusted nonprofits already existing, is a community center necessary?

Martin points out that there are other struggles Austin's queer community must grapple with, such as mental health and healthcare access and job training. With these issues still on the table, Martinez says that in considering a center queer people must ask: Is this a priority?

Even if the answer is yes, how should such a center go about existing in 2018 without hindering other organizations? “That’s another challenge that Austin’s community maybe uniquely faces,” says Clayton Gibson, the founder of fledgling queer support organization Qwell. “There’s this concept of competition between the organizations for donor dollars and for attention.”

Still, many of the people I spoke to believe a community center could be beneficial and might be worth fighting for. The sheer number of nonprofit organizations in Austin can make navigating the queer social network difficult. For young or new-to-Austin queers, it can be difficult to know who to reach out to for what, or where to start when entering these communities.

“The main reason Austin needs to have these kinds of services is that LGBTQ people, even here in Texas’ most progressive city, are suffering,” says Gibson. “They suffer because of external discrimination. They suffer because of family rejection. But they also suffer from mental illness, and depression, and addiction… and we have no system for that.”

Qwell founder Clayton Gibson (Photo provided by Clayton Gibson)

Today, there are two efforts to create an Austin community center. Gibson’s Qwell, which aims to support local queers by creating a community network to operate in place of a typical LGBTQ Center. Gibson says that his first step is to put out a survey in tandem with Dell Medical School to ask the city’s queer population what it is they need and what they’re struggling with. Gibson then hopes to create small, decentralized “life support groups” in different neighborhoods. This way, he hopes Qwell will be more accessible than one singular building.

“What I’ve always appreciated about this model is that it feels like us,” said Kathryn Gonzales, Out Youth’s program coordinator and a member of the LGBTQ Quality of Life Commission. Gibson presented his plan to Commissions earlier this year. Because Gonzales has seen so many traditional centers fail to establish themselves, she believes Qwell might be the solution Austin has been waiting for.

Meanwhile, former Austin Pride President Paul Huddleston is working towards a more traditional effort. He hopes to create a physical space for nonprofits to hold meetings and events, as well as a place for queer folks to form connections. Huddleston believes a center can last if a diverse revenue stream is established and it partners with other organizations to create unique and accessible programming to underserved populations within the queer community.

In theory, a center would no longer face the same uphill climb as Cornerstone regarding city funding. Austin has become a more queer-friendly over the years, as is evident from last year’s formation of the LGBTQ commission. And Huddleston hopes City Council may be willing to provide a physical space for the center – referencing the city’s affordable lease agreement with organizations such as Planned Parenthood on East Seventh Street. He says, since there are unused city properties, Council could grant a similar lease for an LGBTQ Community Center.

At the end of the day, it was noted that an Austin center could help connect people to the various nonprofit groups that already exist – like a directory of sorts. But if a center is to thrive, it cannot just be a space that exists. It must reach out to those in the community that might be overlooked and it needs to utilize the perspective of underrepresented groups to fill in any gaps currently existing within the city’s queer community.

“Are they reaching out to people that don’t always participate? Because those are the people we want to reach,” explains Martinez. “People like me don’t need a community center. I’m privileged. But there are people out there that do. It’s those people who need to tell us what it is they need. Austin has changed. Austin is very accepting, but we still have big gaps between the haves and have nots.”

In 1997 it was uncertain how pronounced the need for a community center was and if a physical space, such as Cornerstone, was the solution. Twenty years later, that same question remains, as of yet, unanswered.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

LGBTQ Community Center, Victor Martinez, Clayton Gibson, Paul Huddleston, QWELL, Kathryn Gonzales, Out Youth

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