The organizing committee for an Ottawa GLBT community centre seems to be taking one step forward and one step back.
The committee has recently registered as a not-for-profit organization in Ontario. Up next: federal registration so that the project can receive tax-deductible contributions.
But Pink Triangle Services (PTS) is backing away from plans to relocate to the new centre.
The recent registration should help the organizing committee lobby city hall for financial help — including an affordable space to rent in or near the rainbow village, says Lyle Borden, co-chair of the committee.
“When we go to the city and other groups, we have a sound base to start with. We’re really happy with that,” says Borden. “The city gave us $5,000 [in 2005]. We’re going to be going back for a whole lot more.”
But while a queer community centre could be the focal point of the future rainbow village, the committee has hit an unexpected curve ball: getting major gay groups, especially PTS, to sign on. Given that PTS is the single largest provider of services for the local queer community, it’s a logical fit and one that past PTS boards of directors strongly endorsed.
But the current president is not so sure.
Having PTS located in a visible space such as a queer community centre wouldn’t be good for all of PTS’s clientele, because some clients want anonymity, says Richard Montminy.
“The question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Is it a place where we could optimize our ability to serve our clients?’ The majority of the gay community doesn’t use PTS. The clients we serve are people more often than not searching. They’re in the process of coming out in some way. We have people who come from different cultural backgrounds. When people come to us, they’re unsure. They have doubts. And what they’re searching for is an environment that is safe. If we don’t deal with that, who will?”
A lot of people who come from violently homophobic families may be too afraid to come to a publicly queer community centre for help, adds Montminy.
“There is a significant component within our client base that is not in the stage of life to come out. The role of PTS is to help them come to terms with their sexuality. It’s easy to forget that if you didn’t come from a nurturing environment, it can be very difficult to discover who you are.”
But Borden and the organizing committee say PTS is doing everyone a disservice.
“Twenty years ago, we didn’t have the support we have now. But not wanting to be visible in 2006? We have another generation moving on. We can’t hold back because some members of the previous generation are nervous. We have to help them get over that nervousness and not move backwards,” says Borden.
Borden says Ottawa’s gay community has spent many years, blood, sweat and tears developing support mechanisms to help everyone get over the fear of being identified as being gay.
And a large component of the “out” gay community that use PTS’s services are youth, he notes.
“What sort of message are we saying to the youth when we say, ‘Be proud of who you are, be willing to come out, here’s the support system, but by the way, we’ll make sure you’re not seen,'” says Borden. “The whole idea is identifying who you are. Someone said at the [community centre steering committee] table, ‘Is PTS going back in the closet?'”
Montminy does say that while PTS as a whole may not want to move into a community centre, it is developing some programs which could be offered at the centre. Among these services are an extensive AIDS outreach program and a group for dealing with older gays.
“There are groups and activities within PTS that could make use of the facilities of the community centre,” says Montminy.
Marie Robertson sits on the queer community centre steering committee. A long-time lesbian activist, she also operates her own counselling business in downtown Ottawa. She says that in order to build a visible queer community centre, all people — including members of visible and religious minority communities –have to step up and be vocal.
“I’ve been in the movement for over 30 years. Oppression doesn’t end silently,” Robertson says. “Some people may not be ready [to come out or be vocal], but at least they should know the community is there.”
There are still a lot of people today who are not ready to come out now or who may never come out, but still need PTS to help them cope with who they are, says Robertson. And having the organization in a public community centre would make it easier for people to find PTS.
“People are still being told that it’s not okay to be queer. We have a new prime minister who thinks we are sinners and marriage is only for straight people,” says Robertson. “Sometimes people need anonymity. But they should still have a place to go and know where it is.”