15 years ago, it might not have worked as well.
About 100 people turned out Sunday afternoon for the grand opening of the LGBT Center of NEPA, a community hub and headquarters for the NEPA Rainbow Alliance, located in Fox Ridge Plaza on Route 315 in Plains Township.
The gathering room was brimming with members of the region’s gay community and many straight folks who came to offer best wishes, a show of support that likely would not have happened in the late ’90s.
The general feeling toward gay people has changed since the organization was founded in 2003, alliance Executive Director John Dawe noted.
“If you go back, say, 15 years, if you were to say, ‘What is the gay community in Northeastern Pennsylvania?’ The answer would be, ‘Well, there’s some bars.’ You didn’t see programs. The social group didn’t exist then,” Dawe said.
The alliance has hosted the annual PrideFest, a festival celebrating the LGBT community, in Kirby Park for the last six years, as well as a smattering of other services and programs. From those programs came a desire to see something more, a way to gather and support each other year-round.
“This is how I knew we were ready for this,” Dawe said, explaining that the support from the community, and financial funding from area businesses and private donors, has grown so that leasing a property is feasible and logical.
The center includes office space, a kitchen, a small meeting/dining area, and a room large enough to fit about 50 people comfortably.
The alliance had an office when it was founded, but a community center started at the wrong time might have jeopardized the whole mission.
“We’ve gotten to a point that we never do anything that’s not strategic. … We opened an office 10 years ago, but it didn’t have a community center. The community wasn’t ready for it,” Dawe said.
Jack Watkins, 62, of Kingston, confirmed the center’s grand opening signals a new way of thinking in the northeast region.
Watkins and his partner, Leonard Bosak, 43, mingled among the crowd sipping wine after the ceremonial ribbon cutting. The two have been together for 23 years.
Watkins said he knew he was gay as early as sixth grade, but when he got to high school, he was targeted for his sexuality.
Going to college at what was then Bloomsburg State College in the early 1970s, again he felt singled out from his colleagues. But he smiled and glanced at Bosak when he said youngsters will have a much better time dealing with those feelings now than before.
“Especially high school kids,” Watkins said. “There was no such thing as a resource like this when I was in school.”
The center will serve as a springboard for new programs and a place to refurbish the old, alliance board co-chairman Carl Halkyer said.
The alliance now offers discussion groups, free HIV testing, and a book club. It maintains a Facebook page and website, gaynepa.com, as well as a support hotline, the NEPA Rainbow Line at 570.972.2523.
Advisory councils prepare for events such as PrideFest and the NEPA Rainbow Awards Gala, to be held April 26 at The Woodlands Inn & Resort in Wilkes-Barre. The alliance works specifically in Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Wyoming counties.
“It’s a huge milestone. I think for any organization, even a family, a religious group, a social organization, they have to have a center point. They have to have a home,” Halkyer said at of the center’s opening.
“The center creates the ability to really expand the programs that we’re going to be doing. There’s a lot of programs that haven’t even been developed yet; they’re ideas that we’ll get from the community.”