The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center (LAGLC) is the Cadillac of queer community centres. It provides space for various groups and social support organizations but it is a true community centre in the strictest sense of the words. Although it provides space for nonprofit community organizations and support networking services for anyone who might need them, it does not exist solely as purveyor of the social services that government fails to provide directly to queer people.
LAGLC’s gorgeous, modern glass building is home to — among other community centre-like amenities — a performance space. The organization has more than 200 paid staff, owns its building, is beholden to no government for its allowance and is on solid financial ground. Last year it earned, through its own fundraising efforts, the vast majority of its whopping $37 million of revenue.
As Canadians we, thankfully, think differently about charity than do the Americans. But the community centres specifically for queer people in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are real-world examples that prove queer communities can independently finance, realize and manage their own institutions — on their own terms, with their own resources — when they take pride in themselves enough to do so.
Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg have their own queer community centres. Each centre is housed in inadequate or shared rental space and most have fewer than 10 staff. Those groups do amazing work but they are heavily dependant on government handouts that come with various attached strings and paralyzing bureaucratic red tape.
Here in Toronto, the 519 Community Centre has been a fantastic boon to Toronto’s queer community since it opened its doors in 1975. It is the envy of struggling queer community centres across the country. The 519’s ongoing renovation and expansion projects will only make the place more accessible and attractive to all of Toronto’s queer citizens.
The 519’s board of directors will soon announce its choice for new executive director. Hopefully, the new person will fully embrace The 519’s queer identity. The argument that The 519 is not a queer community centre, but is rather a community centre that happens by happy accident to be frequented by a lot of queer people, is a purely semantic one that ignores the overwhelmingly obvious queerness of the place. It is possible — preferable even — to be a queer community centre that is welcoming to all. Why not acknowledge openly what everyone already knows? To downplay the identity and history of The 519 seems an expression of the victim mentality that holds so many queer people back in life. To call the place some variation of “The 519 Queer Community Centre” would be a true and accurate expression of pride in The 519’s history.
Secondly, I hope the new executive director will acknowledge that the appearance of The 519 is a reflection of the soul of the queer community. Allowing garbage to pile up at the side of the building and to be scattered around Cawthra Park makes the whole neighbourhood look shabby. It sends the message that no one cares, that we’ve all given up and that we deserve a dirty and messy neighbourhood. For The 519 to deny all responsibility for its front steps, the sidewalk in front of its building and the appearance of and goings on in Cawthra Park only perpetuates the victim mentality.
Regardless of what agreements there are with the city, regardless of who owns what, Cawthra Park is The 519’s backyard, and we are all responsible for our own backyards. The 519’s good work does not absolve it of that obligation. The new executive director should launch an effort to force the city to more adequately police and maintain the park, organize a volunteer program to make The 519’s own backyard more livable and insist that those who access The 519’s social services take some simple pride and responsibility of ownership for the place. The 519 should lead the way simply because it is an expression of pride in its own home and because it is the right thing to do.