40,000 square-foot facility fulfills Harvey Milk’s dream
SAN FRANCISCO — When one of the nation’s first openly gay leaders was assassinated 23 years ago at City Hall, a dream died with him. City Supervisor Harvey Milk had envisioned a place where gays and lesbians could come together to talk about politics, social issues or simply about what it meant to live as homosexuals in San Francisco.
Milk, who first used his camera store in the Castro District as a meeting place for gays, would have been proud of the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. Its doors opened Sunday with a grand celebration after nine years of planning and construction.
“If San Francisco is the gayest place in America, the center is the gayest place in the gayest place in America,” said Oren Slozberg, the center’s interim executive director.
It’s a place for newcomers, youth, seniors and everyone in between. Everything from an American Indian group to therapy and classes on how to write resumes will be offered there. There are even unisex bathrooms so visitors aren’t forced to pick a gender.
The center also will provide a gay-friendly environment for those who may still be closeted or intimidated. Some students are already praising the site as a place to continue their education while avoiding homophobic peers in mainstream classes.
And, by design, the building makes a statement to anyone coming in or out. The 40,000 square foot center is a classic Victorian house combined with an addition built out of clear glass. The glass structure is a symbolic statement about the gay community’s history and its future — an open, uncloseted lifestyle that’s proudly showcased.
“It’s a place to mark and celebrate commitment ceremonies, memorials and births,” Slozberg said. “Very specific moments in their lives.”
While San Francisco is far from lacking in gay rights groups and services, most are scattered throughout the city. Some, like the Harvey Milk Institute, which offers classes and programs about gay culture, have been operating out of organizers’ homes.
The $15.3 million community center, which included $7.5 in government funding, will provide 23 nonprofit agencies with office space.
Nearly 50,000 people are expected to visit in the first year based on projections from the nation’s 142 other gay centers.
The opening also serves as a second wind for the city’s battered gay community. After Milk was shot by Supervisor Dan White in 1978 during the height of gay-rights activism, AIDS hit hard — ravaging the city’s gay population.
The history room will make sure none of that is lost with exhibits, lectures and performances.
“We need to be a stronger and more cohesive community to face all of the outside challenges we continue to face,” said Dana Van Gorder, vice president of the board of directors. “We’re not as focused as we should be on what we want the political and social future to look like. The center is dedicated to the idea of building our future.”