On Dec. 21, 2017, Bretz nightclub announced that it would close its doors for the last time after a more than 30-year run as one of Ohio’s oldest gay bars.
Its buyer was revealed a few weeks later — The Greater Toledo House of Prayer, a fundamentalist Christian church whose core beliefs explicitly prohibit practicing, condoning, or supporting homosexuality, bisexuality, and “gender identity different than the birth sex chromosomal level.”
“Bars have served as a church, a community center for [the LGBT community],” said Lexi Hayman-Staples, executive director of Toledo Pride and member of the Equality Toledo board. “With bars closing, you lose a safe space.”
Equality Toledo’s strategic plan last year identified finding a space for a community center, the possibility of which has been a decades-long conversation within the LGBT community, as a goal for 2020.
But Elaine Korenich, president of the Equality Toledo board, said the closing of Bretz helped mobilize the LGBT community around the cause. An Equality Toledo meeting held about a month after Bretz’s closing attracted almost 100 people, Ms. Hayman-Staples said.
Six months and several open planning meetings later, Equality Toledo is entering the initial stages of a campaign to fund such a center.
Equality Toledo will first raise money for a feasibility study to see if building a LGBT community center in Toledo is possible. Analese Alvarez, executive director of Equality Toledo, said she hopes to get the data from that study and start a capital campaign to attract large, long-term donors for the project no later than October.
After six to eight months of asking for feedback from the community, Equality Toledo will make a fund-raising goal. By the end of this year, it will set a finite deadline for finding a building and a date to open.
From community meetings, Ms. Korenich gathered that members of the community hope the future center will be both a safe place that brings people together and a “center of the movement,” in Ms. Alvarez’s words, that increases the visibility of the LGBT community in the Toledo area.
On a more fundamental level, Ms. Hayman-Staples, who owns a LGBT-friendly bar with her mother, hopes that the center will bring together members of the LGBT community from all age groups in a way that gay bars cannot. Because gay bars tend to revolve around alcohol, they often attract exclusively young adults, not adolescents or middle-aged and older adults.
As far as potential amenities offered at the future center, the sky’s the limit, Ms. Alvarez said. Her long list of possibilities for the center include a LGBT library, a vegan cafe, a youth center, and a convertible ballroom space where Harvey House, a drop-in center for LGBT youth, could host its annual gay prom. Rob Salem, local attorney and chair of LGBT Bar Association, hopes the center will provide a safe place to the most marginalized in the LGBT community, particularly LGBT youth and the trans community.
Ms. Korenich, Ms. Hayman-Staples, Ms. Alvarez, and Brent Rabie, information coordinator for Toledo Pride, all emphasized their desire for a LGBT-friendly health clinic that offers sexually transmitted disease and HIV testing and mental health services. The Equality Toledo Community Pantry, run out of the Collingwood Presbyterian Church, might relocate to the center when it opens.
One of the top priorities for the center is office space for Equality Toledo employees to do work, Ms. Korenich said. But Ms. Alvarez stressed that though Equality Toledo will be housed in the new center, the goal of the center is to provide the space and resources for the programming of LGBT organizations throughout the community.
“We have various groups within the community that do a lot of great work, and so that’s one of the reasons that having a community center would be a good idea. It will hopefully be a one-stop shop that people can call their home, and it will enhance collaboration efforts between groups,” Mr. Salem said.
All five members of the LGBT community interviewed said that in their own personal experience, Toledo is a welcoming and accepting place to live for LGBT individuals.
From a legal point of view, Toledo is a “pioneer in adopting LGBT policies,” Mr. Salem said, adopting one of the first nondiscrimination ordinances in the state that protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation in 1998. Still, they all agreed that a community center would enhance the climate of Toledo for its LGBT community.
“I love Toledo and how it treats me and most of my friends,” Ms. Korenich said. “I think that there’s still work to be done for sure, but that’s why the work we do is so important.”
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