FRONTIERS - December 18, 1997


by Kate Kendell

There is a great comfort in living in a city with an active, powerful, progressive and visible queer community. It is more than a comfort; it is a blessing—blessing and a curse.

The blessings are obvious: greater security, safety, a voice in myriad policy decisions, a greater degree of protection from overt discrimination and subtle harassment. The list could go on. But there is a downside: a tendency to be more apathetic, complacent, petty. Witness the growing brouhaha over our imperiled community center. Here we are, the "gay mecca," and we do not have the one thing that even some of the most marginalized queer communities have--a structure in which to congregate, share information, educate, provide services, hang out, read or converse.

But the dream of a community center finally existing in this, the queerest of cities, has seemed on the verge of realization. It appeared that we would see a center open right around the beginning of the next century. But, of course, nothing in the San Francisco playpen goes so easily.

The building purchased for the center has the distinction of being one of the few Victorians on market Street. Granted, it is a dilapidated, neglected, oft-altered, stripped and emaciated Victorian, but it is one of a kind, and as an aficionado of historic buildings, I very much liked the idea of a tasteful restoration of the old building to its former splendor. In fact, at an early meeting I attended prior to the purchase of the building, I argued that if the building were acquired, all efforts should be made to incorporate and save the original structure -- that is, all efforts short of scrapping the idea of a community center altogether or incurring such debt as to make it impossible.

Now, after months of study, the project is at a crossroads. The information gathered to date suggests that incorporating the Victorian into any new construction would be prohibitively expensive, would result in a building with far less usable space than an entirely new building, and may well compromise the safety of the final structure.

While I much prefer wood, history, and character over glass, steel and concrete, I prefer a community center even more. And while we are all still waiting for a design that truly captures the warmth and charm of this great city, it may have to be that the final product does not include the Victorian.

This city and this community deserve a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center with all the possibilities it offers. I can't help but note the irony of the fact that the one city that should and could really support such a center may very well never see one -- not because virulent homophobes refused to issue a construction permit or because no one felt safe enough to openly support such a project, but because it was decided by those with plenty of safety and security that it wasn't worth constructing a community center if it meant tearing down a building. What a luxury it is to have such priorities -- a luxury not enjoyed in virtually any other place in the world.

There are few places in this city (in fact, I can think of none) where young queers, old lesbians and gay men, queers of color and the rest of us routinely gather together. A well-run community center can be such a place. The realization of that vision should be our priority. In all the heat, rhetoric and finger-pointing, we appear to have lost focus of that vision.

Kate Kendell is an attorney and executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, based in San Francisco.

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