Community Center Grows Up in The Bronx

Community Center Grows Up in The Bronx

LGBT Health Consortium, founded in 1996, expands, with funding expected from feds

William Gilbert started going there a month ago. Living only a few blocks down the street, he heard about the Spot Next Door through a friend. He now pays several visits a week to the gay youth drop-in center at the Bronx Consortium, located on 149th Street in the South Bronx.

“It is a learning experience every day,” the 17-year-old college student said.

Together with an average of 30 youths who go there on a daily basis, Gilbert takes part in the Spot Next Door afternoon activities, ranging from art, computer, and health classes to a more casual pursuit—just hanging out on the couch. These local teens also enjoy the company of their own gay “dad,” more commonly known as Larry Williams, educational director at the Consortium.

“The kids started calling me dad. This job is just a dream come true for me, ” said Williams, who, while growing up in North Carolina, always wanted to work with gay youth. Starting out as a volunteer this past summer, he was hired as a staff member by executive director Lisa Winters in August.

Two weeks ago, Winters hired another staff member to help coordinate a program for transgendered and gender-variant youth. Other programs offered by the Consortium—which bills itself as “servicing the needs of the LGBT community”—include a health help line, HIV prevention and education services, and a Sexuality Matters workshop for local medical professionals. During the past year, the Consortium has turned into a busy place. With a budget that has tripled, based on five state and city contracts along with private donations, it has been able to double its staff, which now numbers nine people.

“We just learned we’re going to receive a $100,000 grant made possible by Congressman José Serrano,” Winters said, referring to a Bronx Democrat in Washington. The money, a federal grant awarded by the Department of Justice, is to support the Consortium’s youth program. Pending formal Senate approval and President George W. Bush’s signature, the grant will be a done deal in early December, if all goes as hoped.

“I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve secured a $100,000 Department of Justice grant for the Bronx Lesbian and Gay Health Resource Consortium,” Serrano said, in an email message. “The work that they are carrying out in the community is of vital importance, and I’m pleased to support it. I think that their rapid growth as an organization shows they are truly filling a void in the social services available to the people of the Bronx.”

With the money, Winters plans to hire a full-time social worker.

In an interview, Winters explained that she has been overwhelmed by the support she has received since being appointed executive director last December.

“The local community has been wonderful. I think we really are turning things around up here,” she said.

“The Bronx is different and distant to Manhattan culture.” Winters explained.

Born and raised in the Bronx, she is as passionate about the community as she is specific about the problems it presents.

“The strong family ties here make the issue of outing even more traumatic,” she said.

The Bronx LGBT community has historically been subject to a great deal of stigmatization, she argued.

But with gay marriage an issue being discussed everywhere around the country, and the Consortium’s openly queer presence gaining visibility in the community, the tide has started to shift. The South Bronx location, which has been in operation for two years, now sports a recently installed, highly visible street-level rainbow logo sign. Any given day, kids and teachers alike call in asking about the Consortium’s programs.

“We’re the only gay center in the Bronx,” Winters noted. “Our presence has helped increase tolerance and decrease homophobia, but also changed the way people talk about homosexuality.”

The only disappointment so far has been the lack of funding from the Bronx borough president’s office, which she said has been a fact under both Fernando Ferrer, this year’s Democratic mayoral nominee who served the Bronx until 2001, and under the current incumbent, Adolfo Carrión, Jr.,

“Under Fernando Ferrer we got nothing from the Borough president,” she complained. “And they continue to say no.”

Determined to have the Consortium change its name to the Bronx Gay Center, Winters said she wants to “put the Bronx on the map.”

“For so long our needs were unnoticed and therefore unmet,” she said. “You know what, I want that to change.”

As one of the co-founders of what was originally known as the Bronx Lesbian and Gay Health Resource Consortium in 1996, Winters decided last year she would leave her job as an attorney to devote her energies to serving her native Bronx queer community. It is a decision she has not regretted.

“I think it’s hot to get paid to do LGBT organizing,” she said. “I mean, who has a better job than me?”

Tyra Allure, a well-known downtown entertainer, was hired by Winters early this year as the Consortium’s transgender coordinator. Allure said she receives several calls a day with inquiries on issues of awareness and tolerance. Joined by a new staff member, Sean Coleman, her transgender team is busy putting together trans-sensitivity courses to be pitched to major companies.

“It is all about creating awareness”, Allure explained. “And God knows, they need all the help they can get.”

According to Allure, many workplaces have no idea what to do when faced with a gay employee, let alone a transgendered one. The message she preaches involves a bold, but simple message: “We’re here and it’s nobody’s business who or what we are.”

Allure’s own early experiences led her to begin doing trans awareness work on a freelance basis as early as 2000.

The fact that adults still teach their children to hate is major concern that Allure hopes to address.

“It brings on the DL thing, although hiding one’s status may in some cases be the wise decision,” she said about the tough choices facing queer youth. “Because coming out is really about being comfortable with oneself.”

After a Wednesday youth group meeting, Sylvia, a Spot Next Door regular, was busy lounging with her girlfriend Skye.

The two 16-year-olds met there a month ago and try to spend as much time together, at home or at the “Spot,” as Sylvia called the comfortable apartment that makes up the Consortium.

The homey atmosphere helps newcomers like two friends, Steven and Jonathan, both 15, feel at ease. At the Spot for the first time, they chose to keep their jackets on, remaining seated in front of one of the computers. At the Bronx high school they both go to, Steven hangs out with “mainly lesbians,” he said, while Jonathan’s friends tell him they are straight.

“But I think some of them are really gay,” the youth said.

“But we were not nervous coming here,” Steven said. “And we will come back soon, maybe next Tuesday.”