By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series.
Imagine (or remember) a world before personal computers, cell phones, the internet, and social media.
It was 1971, and the LGBT community was still reeling from Stonewall (1969) and the inclusion of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the 1968 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Same-sex sexual acts were considered criminal in all but the state of Illinois, in the United States.
It was into this environment, against a maelstrom of mainstream hate, that the San Diego LGBT Community Center (The Center) was born.
At a time when “the love that dare not speak its name” truly could not be given a voice, it all started with a hotline and an answering machine, created and maintained by Jess Jessop in 1971.
Realizing the need for expanded resources, Jessop pulled together a group of other courageous San Diegans to begin conceptualizing a space for the LGBT community. A planning committee was formed in 1972, and the “Center for Social Services,” the first chapter of “The Center” as we know it today, was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in 1973.
I recently had the honor of sitting down with some of the founding members, staff and volunteers who kept the doors open in those fledgling years, to share in their stories and be inspired by their courage and motivation.
Joining me in one of The Center’s community conference rooms were founding committee members, Patricia Byers, Jerry Peterson and Cynthia Wallace; military legal counselor, Bridget Wilson; and The Center’s former executive director, Jeri Dilno, who served in that role from 1975 to 1978.
We opened with a discussion about the steps it took to make the conceptual leap from an answering machine-based hotline, to a functioning resource center.
“The first priority for the planning committee was just to find a place, and to get the doors open,” Byers recalled. “The location we found [2250 B St.], was being used as a halfway house for folks transitioning from prison, so the neighborhood was not that unhappy when we took over the space. From there came training from professionals who were willing to mentor us, so we could deal with the folks who came through those doors.”
Today, “intersectionality” is a watchword in LGBTQ rights advocacy movements, but this aspect has always been a part of the community. It is important to remember that the “Gay Liberation” movement, which first took place in 1970, coexisted with the civil rights movements for African-Americans and Women’s Liberation.
“For me, I was dealing with civil rights as an African-American, women’s rights as a woman, and gay rights as well,” Wallace explained. “Even though they all seem to come from the center of rights and wanting to live as a full citizen within your own country, it still presented itself in many different layers.”
For many, just having a room populated by other LGBT individuals was a phenomenon many community members had never experienced.
“There was such a sense of relief to just be in a room full of gay people, to be able to talk about what they had experienced and what they were feeling,” Peterson said. “We were able to provide an alternative from the bar scene, at which so many gay men and women were too intimidated to engage. That was the space we created.”
“For so many, we were the first individuals that a gay person would talk to, who would tell them that they were alright and that there was nothing wrong with them,” Wilson added. “We began to normalize people’s lives for them.”
When Dilno took the helm as executive director in 1975, The Center was in its “toddler stages,” as the interviewees defined that period, but the bones of the organization were solid, if perhaps shrouded in a bit of subterfuge.
Supported in part by funds from the United Way, the organization could not even acknowledge that they were an LGBT-focused resource center. Nonetheless, in a time before “easy communication,” folks in need found their way there.
“The first week that I was there, I found a young man hiding under the stairwell,” Dilno remembered. “I walked over to talk with him and learned that he was an 18-year old Marine, who had ‘escaped’ from Camp Pendleton, after being beat up. Because of the work of the founders, there was a structure in place and I was able to connect him to the ACLU, who took over the situation, but on that day, I realized that this was not a normal 9-to-5 job. You just never knew what would come through the door, or what that day’s adventure might be.”
The “Center for Social Services” continued to evolve throughout the 1970s, addressing needs and building connections, including the initial outreach of the LGBT community to the San Diego police force and the facilitation of resources for the heavy LGBT military population, many who were returning from Vietnam.
We closed our conversation with a reflection of the founders, describing what it felt like to be sitting in a room at the 2017 version of The Center, knowing that this started with the seed they planted and nourished.
“I would say that the years I put into The Center are the years I’m most proud of,” Byers said. “It was inspiring, hard, and a difficult thing to do, but I love the people that I met, and I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish, especially at such a young age.”
“This is what we dreamed about; this was the fantasy,” Wilson continued. “In the beginning, it was just us ‘kids’ doing everything, from counseling folks to fixing the toilets, for a decade. Now, seeing the comprehensive and specialized services at today’s Center, I have lived to see how our dedication has paid off.”
“Every time I walk in this building, I wish that Jess was here to see what his vision has become,” Peterson added. “It’s unbelievable to see how far we’ve come.”
The Center is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, with their “Sapphire Gala” to be held Oct. 21 at the Hotel del Coronado. Tickets are available at bit.ly/2hxXhNe.
This is the first in a three-part series celebrating its evolution through those 45 years. Stay tuned next month, as we dive into the 1980-90s.
—Ian D. Morton is the director of operations at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and produces the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ youth conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to email@example.com.