We are all in this together. I believe that deeply, and that belief motivates my politics and my civic engagement. I think it’s what makes me a Democrat, and it’s what makes me believe that each of us has an obligation to “give back” or “pay it forward.” It also animates my understanding of my place in the queer community.
I came out just about a quarter-century ago, and I was so lucky. I had grown up in San Francisco, knew gay teachers at my high school, had seen gay characters in movies and on TV, and had even, late at night with the sound turned way down on the television in the downstairs kitchen, snuck a few peaks at the naughty gay public access television shows. I was at the time studying at Yale College, the gayest of the Ivies, where John Boswell and others had done groundbreaking work in gay and lesbian studies, where several active LGBT organizations were busy making the campus a welcoming one for queer folk, and where everyone—gay and straight—agreed that the LGBT Co-op hosted the best dances.
Coming out was not hard for me. There was no familial rejection, and no sense that my career aspirations would be forever stunted. There were, however, a few awkward conversations with friends and family, and the shadow of AIDS loomed particularly large back then when “treatments” were medieval and a diagnosis was understood to be a death sentence. But, all in all, going gay was pretty darned easy: I read a bunch of queer-themed books, started going to Co-op meetings, made new friends, and started working out more.
I fully recognized, though, that it was not that easy for everyone, and I knew that it was only that easy for me because so many people—in San Francisco, at Yale, and throughout the world—had suffered and struggled and sometimes died to clear a path for young queer kids like me. I started thinking of our LGBT community as a ship sailing the ocean, offering a lifeline to all the closeted queers struggling to survive in the choppy seas. And each of us who had been pulled to safety on that ship had—and for the rest of our lives would continue to have—an obligation to help pull others up from the watery depths.
That’s why six years ago, when I was recovering from the sting of an unsuccessful race for District 8 Supervisor and trying to figure out something worthwhile to do with myself now that the fates (and the force of nature known as Scott Wiener) had gifted me with some unanticipated free time, I decided to get involved with our San Francisco LGBT Community Center.
I had gotten to know about the Center’s programs and services, and had become a serious fan of both its Executive Director, Rebecca Rolfe, and its Board Co-Chair, James Williamson, during my Supervisor campaign. I know that there are those in the community who will always be disappointed that our Center never turned out to be a sort of Gay JCC, with a great pool and gym, and maybe even a snack bar and restaurant. It’s true that our Center is not that. But I for one don’t need our Center to be that, and I am pleased with what it is: a queer institution that, like our mission statement says, connects “our diverse community to opportunities, resources and each other to achieve our vision of a stronger, healthier, and more equitable world for LGBT people and our allies.”
Now approaching the end of my last year as the Center’s Board Chair, I am so proud of the work we have been able to accomplish together. I am especially proud of the nearly-complete building remodel. Our Center has served our community for fifteen years, with a special focus on the needs of our most vulnerable: transgender people seeking employment, homeless youth, folks of all ages experiencing housing insecurity, and the list goes on and on. But throughout that period, the Center has struggled with a basic challenge related to the layout of our building: we have never been able to generate enough revenue from the building to pay its costs of operation, and have had to rely on the vagaries of annual fundraising simply to keep the doors open. Until now.
Our building renovation should fix that math problem and set the Center on a path of fiscal stability for the foreseeable future. With the addition of approximately fifteen thousand square feet of badly needed nonprofit office space to serve organizations like Bay Area Legal Aid and API Wellness, the Center will not only be a more vibrant building better able to serve the needs of the community, but it will also be a more financially secure one as well.
The next several years should be exciting ones for the Center. With improved cash flow from building operations, the Board, staff and community will have a renewed opportunity to imagine the role the Center can play in our community life in the years and decades ahead. This building will never be a Gay JCC, but we should be able to offer more and better services to queers in need and to do additional work in areas like Queer Arts and Culture where there is community interest. I myself would love for the Center to someday play a role in helping secure desperately needed performance and office space for queer arts organizations, but that’s just one man’s idea. The future, dear friends, is bright and limitless. We have much to celebrate.
On the evening of April 8, the Center will hold its 15th Anniversary Soiree at Terra Gallery at 511 Harrison Street. The dinner (which starts at 5 pm) has sold out, but tickets to the general admission party (which starts at 8:30 pm) are still available at www.sfcenter.org/soiree15 and can be purchased at the door. Juanita MORE! is returning as our Entertainment Director for the evening, and, with Juanita in charge, the party promises to be a spectacular one.
The following day, April 9, we will be rededicating our renovated building at 1800 Market Street at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 1 pm, followed by an open house. If you have not yet had the opportunity to visit our remodeled digs, please come by. We are thrilled about how the building has turned out, and I hope you will be too!
Rafael Mandelman is a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Oakland. He has served as a member of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees since 2013, and is Chair of the Board of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.