How Pa.’s LGBTQ community centers are adapting to the challenges of the pandemic

The mural of the late Gloria Casarez (Philadelphia Gay News photo)

By Frank Pizzoli

A new report from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) illustrates how local community centers serving LGBTQ people provide vital information, education, and health services to over 58,000 people each week pre-pandemic, and 45,700 people each week during the pandemic.

For many LGBTQ people, the community centers are often the only local source of queer-inclusive, targeted social, educational, and health services. In all, there are 186 centers located in 43 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Especially during the Covid pandemic, LGBTQ community centers remain innovative and adaptable while meeting the needs of their communities. Center leaders in Allentown, Erie, Lancaster, Milford and York shared with Central Voice their programming change ups due to the pandemic.

Lancaster

Karen Foley, The Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition Executive Director, reports that housing was the biggest concern of individuals seeking pandemic-related support. Housing support was requested in over two thirds of the coalition’s requests for help.

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Foley also indicated in an email that concerns over healthcare represented 17% of the center’s pandemic-related requests for help. Food insecurity was reported on 12% of applications.

A testimonial by one queer person of color underscores the role the center plays in providing help.

“While the coalition has been a constant support before all of these newer trials, having their unwavering support during this time has been life-saving. The emergency funds provided to me from the coalition helped give me a sense of security that was extremely hard to come by,” the person said in their testimonial. “Knowing that I had funds for food and my own hygiene made the difference between being able to function and being another statistic.”

An anonymous testimonial about the center’s help noted: “The emergency funds from the coalition helped my family immensely. The check came at the perfect time, when we were in danger of our phones being shut off.”

Pike County

In Milford, Pike County Steven Teague, Executive Director of TriVersity Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity, has been communicating weekly with its constituency via email and overlapping social media postings. The center also provides a way for people to “check in” on a weekly basis.

“We have offered a weekly check in over Zoom referred to as Coffee Talk,” Teague said. “Although the check-in started strong and then dwindled, we imagine as Fall and Winter really hit, Coffee Talk will be active once again,” he forecasts.

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Another resource the center developed is TriVersity Talk. “Each week, we live stream with a different guest, where we discuss important facets of LGBTQ life as a way to keep our community engaged.”

TriVersity’s reach out during the pandemic is vitally important to queer members of the Milford and greater Pike County area. “In a rural community, LGBTQ folks already deal with enhanced isolation. Covid has only increased such isolation. We are all desperately in such of connection with those who understand what we go through on a day-to-day basis,” Teague said.

Erie Region

Currently, Erie doesn’t have a physical LGBTQ center, said Michael Mahler, Founder of Erie Gay News and longtime activist and advocate. That doesn’t mean in the absence of a formal center there is no activity directed specifically at the queer community. Erie County Department of Health was one of the first counties in Pennsylvania to issue an LGBTQ-specific Covid policy.

Mahler reports that Erie County government is currently working on honing its pandemic messaging to various demographics, including the queer community. Mahler and local activist-advocate Gary Snyder, both members of the Erie County HIV Task Force, are applying any related knowledge regarding communicable disease to Covid.

York

The Rainbow Rose Center, York County’s LGBTQ Resource Center, has continued to ‘virtually’ offer services throughout the duration of the pandemic while its physical space is closed.
One popular offering has been a Zoom-hosted monthly Transgender Support Group Meeting. “Attendees have come from all over the state, even a few from outside the state, and attendance has been a few to a dozen, Tesla Taliaferro, President, Rainbow Rose Center, said.

With or without a stifling pandemic, “The LGBTQ community here and beyond, can reach out to the center for information on resources, or requests for assistance and support,” Taliaferro said, adding Resource Specialists are available to answer questions, and have helped dozens of people connect to affirming medical services and other necessities during the last several months.”

Like many Pride celebrations, the center reshaped its programming (some available on youtube) to include 12 of The Equality Fest Jr event for Youth, the main Equality Fest event with over 215 views with messages from local elected officials. Last month, the center did a National Coming Out Day: A Time of Stories and Prayer Service which grabbed over 500 views, Taliaferro said.

“We understand many people feel isolated which can lead to worsening mental health and severe loneliness. Even before the pandemic, the LGBTQ community experienced a higher rate of poverty, many live without health insurance, and there was less access to affirming resources compared to the larger non-queer population,” Taliaferro explains. Consequently, the center is engaging with local homeless shelters and doctors’ offices to increase their awareness of the needs of the LGBTQ population so that they will be more affirming resources in both the immediate and long-term future.

Even though the Rainbow Rose Center lost its physical office space due to the pandemic’s financial impact on both the Center and the organization they rented from, they continue to support and assist those community members who reach out to them virtually.

Allentown

Throughout the pandemic, Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown has been providing virtual programs and services aiming to keep its constituency connected and supported. “We’ve also been providing key public health information and advocacy to keep our community safe from this dangerous virus,” Adrian Shanker, Founder and Executive Director.

The pandemic “had only exacerbated the existing challenges the LGBTQ community was already experiencing,” he said, “making the center’s health promotion programs are even more essential as we get information out to our community during a global pandemic.

The center worked with the PA Department of Health by helping the department with their data collection mandate on sexual orientation and gender identity data regarding Covid infections. Shanker also worked with municipal and state health agencies to adopt sexual health guidance during the pandemic.

“The arts and culture programs we have always provided are even more important than ever as we work to maintain community connection during this period with extended physical distancing. The youth support we offer is even more important as youth are not able to connect with their LGBTQ peers in school. And our advocacy during this time has made a critical impact,” Shanker said.

Shanker also worked in a significant way with the PA Department of Health “to help them with their data collection mandate on sexual orientation and gender identity data on infections. We worked with municipal and state health agencies to adopt sexual health guidance during the pandemic.”

“We will never stop fighting for the LGBTQ community,” Shanker said.

Frank Pizzoli is the editor and publisher of the Central Voice, central Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ publication, and a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.