The front door of the brick Victorian at 34 Elmwood Ave. will be wide open today as Burlington's expanded community center for gays and lesbians hosts a grand-opening celebration.
The center's new and larger digs offers new programs, including an on-site cyber center for public use. The R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center was formerly located in a small office on the Burlington waterfront — a good location in the summer, but a Siberian outpost in the winter.
The center moved to the new location in April.
“We're a lot easier to find,” said Christopher Kaufman, executive director of the center. “We've already seen an enormous increase in our drop-in traffic.”
With more space the center can expand its mission to address the social, educational and health needs of Vermont's gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered population and their friends and families, he said.
The center hosts many support groups and serves as a clearinghouse for information on related organizations and events. It is also an informal gay tourist bureau for visitors from out of town, a lending library (no cards needed) and an exhibit space.
Center staff work on a range of issues — from educating rural gay people about safe sex to lobbying the Legislature for school reforms that protect gay and lesbian students.
The biggest new offering at the center is the room full of brand-new PCs. They were purchased through a $30,000 grant from the David Bohnett Foundation.
Bohnett, the founder of GeoCities, is a gay man who endowed the foundation to help gay people stay connected on the Internet and to promote social change.
The cyber-center will allow visitors to safely research and communicate about issues related their sexuality, Kaufman said.
“There are many people in our community who don't have access to safe computers in their homes, youth in particular,” Kaufman said. “They are not 'out' to their parents and they are afraid.”
The computers are available to anyone, he emphasized.
“You do not have to present a membership card at the door. It is open to everyone and that was part of David Bohnett's vision — that the cyber-centers would be open to everyone and that they would build connections between gay people and straight people.”
Community centers for gay people are cropping up all over the country — some in swank, multimillion dollar buildings and some in the basements of private homes. They are starting to have the kind of voice that ethnic and religious community center groups have in local affairs, said Sheila Healy, executive director of The National Association of L.G. B.T. Community Centers.
“Increasingly, we are at the table.”
The Burlington center was founded in 1999 by two University of Vermont students. The center name changed last year with the insertion of the word “queer.” Of the 140 similar community centers around the country, the Burlington organization is the only one Kaufman knows of with the word “queer” in its name.
The word has brought a few complaints.
“It's harder, I think, for older people than younger people because they tend to remember queer as a very strong and striking epithet from the 1940s and 1950s,” Kaufman said.
Most centers have the gay-lesbian-transgendered-bisexual label in their names. The Burlington group decided against that route, Kaufman said.
“For a long time it's been this kind of alphabet soup — of all of these different labels and we really felt that it was important for us to present a unified community center and that queer was the word that was going to do that for us.”
— WHAT: R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center's grand opening with music, drag cabaret, food, face painting, chair massage, tours — WHEN: 1-5 p.m. today — WHERE: 34 Elmwood Ave., Burlington — INFORMATION: 860-7812
For a link to R.U.1.2?'s Web site, which features history, health information and information on educational workshops, go to www.burlingtonfreepress.com.