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An LGBT community center: Has the moment passed?



One gap in the Triangle's gay community is the lack of a community center. But it's not for lack of trying.

The Triangle Gay Alliance, probably the first gay activist organization in the Triangle, occupied a two-story, four-bedroom house in Raleigh's Boylan Heights. The house acted as a kind of early community center from 1971 to 1973, when the group folded.

The Metropolitan Community Churches in the area have acted as de facto community centers ever since St. John's was founded in Raleigh in the mid-1970s.

"It has been my experience that when LGBT folks come to a new community, they often ask where to meet gay people," says the Rev. Wanda Floyd, "and the choices, in our community, have been the bars or the MCC churches. In coming to church, however, they have to address any issues of spirituality they may have."

First created by the gay student group at UNC-CH, the Southeastern Conference for Lesbians and Gay Men met all over the South for more than a decade. When the conference came to Raleigh in 1990, it was close to the end of its run as an annual event. Raleigh organizers planned to create a community center out of the profits from the conference, but it never happened.

"Our Own Place" in Durham, "a lesbian space," was one of the most carefully planned efforts at a local community center, and one of the few to actually come to fruition. It was in a rented house on Watts Street in the early 1990s and then moved to a commercial space on Broad Street.

"There's a limit to what can be done on entirely volunteer effort," says Laurel Ferejohn of Durham. "We couldn't keep up the monthly fundraising we had to do to pay the rent."

Through the '90s, there was an effort in the Durham-Chapel Hill area to create the "Kerr-Lee Center," named for Kathy Kerr and Lester Lee, two local activists who died much too young. Ron Woytowich and Christine Westfall held the reins during the project's final years.  

"We held meetings," Woytowich remembers. "There was some fundraising, but after about 10 to 12 meetings, the community drive seemed to wane."

Meanwhile, over in Raleigh, a similar idea was being tossed around.

"When several different organizations pulled together to create Triangle Community Works," says Wayne Wilson, former board member, "the thought was that there would someday be a space that would be welcoming, where people could have office space and other things. But ... there just wasn't enough backing by people--in time or money--to get the effort stabilized and continuing."

The goal of a community center is still on TCW's agenda. "We are still working on the idea, trying to find a location and funding. It's very much a project in the works," says current chair Jan Muller. "I am working full-time to try to get funding for this and other TCW projects."

Numerous Web sites--such as and sprung up locally and offer themselves as virtual community centers. An awful lot of what people looked to a community center for--information and contact--can be found on the Web. The question remains whether the moment for a brick-and-mortar community center has passed.

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