In the immediate post-Stonewall years, starting a gay community center was fraught with problems — such as having spies infiltrate your organizing meetings or hearing from the IRS that your group is “neither benevolent nor charitable” because it serves gays.
But two LGBT centers that overcame those exact challenges have gone on to thrive and are observing their 40th anniversaries this year: the University of Michigan’s Spectrum Center and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.
In 1971 the Spectrum Center originated as the Human Sexuality Office, the first gay center with paid staff in any U.S. college or university. There were two quarter-time staffers: Cindy Gair and Jim Toy.
The office grew out of the activity of upstart gay groups, and initially the university administration was rather hostile, Toy recalls. At one meeting of the Gay Liberation Front, a university spy falsely reported back that the meeting was not well attended and that the group would likely disband quietly, notes Toy, who still wonders if the spy might have actually been sympathetic to the gay activists and was trying to divert administration attention away from the group’s activities.
Instead of quietly disbanding, the GLF, Radical Lesbians, and others successfully campaigned for the establishment of the gay center, which has seen more successes, such as the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity to university nondiscrimination policy. The Spectrum Center also offers many activities and services, and it makes more than 80 classroom presentations a year.
In Los Angeles, the Gay and Lesbian Center dates its founding to 1971, the year of its incorporation as the Gay Community Services Center. But the center’s founders were providing social services a couple of years before that, so it's “one of the oldest, if not the oldest” among gay community centers in the U.S., says current CEO Lorri L. Jean. (The Center Orange County, another Southern California LGBT center, has also been around since 1971.)
The L.A. Center overcame an early challenge in 1974, when the IRS reversed, on appeal, its decision that the center did not deserve tax-exempt status because of its mission. It has expanded its services as other challenges have arisen, the direst being the onslaught of AIDS. “The center literally had to lead the way in providing new models of care,” Jean says, even as the disease was claiming many of its founders and leaders.
While the center now faces a threat from government funding cuts, Jean says the group “has thrived in good times and bad.” And even with major advances toward LGBT equality, she says, “There’s no lessening of need or demand from our community.”