The Biggest LGBT Center In The World Just Got Bigger — And Better

With the addition of a new campus for youth and seniors, the Los Angeles LGBT Center is breaking new ground and serving the most vulnerable.
Amy Sussman via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES The construction wasn’t quite finished on the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s new Anita May Rosenstein Campus in mid-May. There was still caution tape on some of the planters outside, and men on ladders were drilling into ceilings, securing fixtures and sweeping up, like frantic workers in “The Truman Show.”

But inside the sparkling glass complex, a culinary course was already underway. Six students, three LGBTQ seniors and three youth, were on day nine of their class, making a chicken fricassee under the guidance of Janet Crandall, the executive chef of the Center’s culinary arts program.

“You’ll want to take out the chicken when you are reducing the sauce,” she explained.

“Yes, chef,” the students said, earnestly.

Crandall, a friendly, energetic person with a short, blond haircut, was hired by the Center in January. “I was writing curriculum up till the kitchen opened on April 7. We got the OK from the health inspection the Friday before.”

The classes are the brainchild of cookbook author and TV personality Susan Feniger, a Center board member. The mission is twofold: to give seniors and youth marketable culinary skills, and eventually to serve up to 600 meals a day at the Center, as well as to produce food for a cafe there.

The course is 300 hours over three months. “The first 100 hours focus on basic cooking techniques, including knife skills, cutting vegetables, cooking vegetables, making stock, grilling, braising,” Crandall said. “Then they move to the second level of 100 hours, cooking on a larger scale for members of the Center. This also includes proper food ordering and receiving methods.” The students spend their last 100 hours as interns in L.A. restaurants.

Crandall noted that each student has a uniform with their name embroidered on it. “Whatever you want to say you are, you are here,” she said. “It’s something so small, but that’s how they identify. And when they go out to a restaurant for work, that’s who they are too.”

Everyone Deserves A Beautiful Space

The commercial-sized kitchen is the spiritual and physical center of the new Rosenstein Campus. After more than a decade of fundraising and planning, the new complex is almost complete. There are two wings: one with 100 beds and 25 micro-apartments for at-risk youth, and another expected to have 98 affordable housing units for seniors by 2020. Those are linked by Pride Hall, a common ground where two of the most vulnerable segments of the LGBTQ community can meet, connect, cook and eat together.

The Los Angeles LGBT Center was already the largest such facility in the world. Now it’s even bigger.

“At the end of the day, this is a $140 million project,” said Darrel Cummings, the Center’s chief of staff who, with the Center’s CEO Lorri Jean and the board of directors, began raising money for the campus in 2012. Designed by Leong Leong and Killefer Flammang Architects, the complex looks as modern and clean as the Getty Villa in Malibu. It’s fresh, elegant, with green roofs and mini-courtyards throughout.

“When you think of an LGBT center, you think, ‘Oh, a rented space with beanbag chairs, where you can sit and talk about how awful everything is,’” Cummings said. “Here there is natural light everywhere. And who is this space for? It’s for really low-income or homeless people. We intentionally built an iconic structure that would look as beautiful as this, because we believe all of these people deserve it by virtue of being a human being.”

The need is there. The new campus has only been open two weeks, and already it is filling up. When it comes to the more vulnerable populations of the LGBTQ community, there is no such thing as a soft opening.

Los Angeles LGBT Center

A Silver Tsunami

That morning in Pride Hall, the Center held a luncheon in honor of “Respect Your LGBTQ Elders” Day. City Councilman David Ryu, a major supporter of the project, stopped by with some good news: He’d secured $450,000 in this year’s city budget to fund programs, meals and more at the campus’ senior center.

In 2007, realizing that the “silver tsunami” of baby boomers heading into retirement included a very large lavender wave, the Center applied for and received a three-year, $1 million grant from the Administration on Aging, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to pilot a program that would address senior LGBTQ issues.

According to a 2014 study by the nonprofit group Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, there are at least 3 million LGBT people over 55 in the United States, and that number will double in 20 years. Within this community are long-term HIV survivors who have particular health care needs.

At the same time, the Center also wanted to increase services for another underserved and rising demographic — at-risk and homeless youth. Shockingly, 40% of homeless youth in Los Angeles identify as LGBT.

“We quickly realized if we were going to do this, we were going to have to think about a new space — and raise a lot of money,” Cummings said.

“When we started thinking of the space, we were really turned on by the idea of young people who have never had access to the history of LGBT people,” he said. “And for older people to have access to the younger generation ― that would be a very interesting thing to try.”

That this campus opens during a dark time for marginalized people in our country is not lost on the Center’s staff. “Resisting is one thing,” Cummings said, “but this is an achievement in the face of all this. Our community came forward and said, ‘We don’t believe in hunger.’”

Fighting Erasure

On the wall in Pride Hall is a detailed timeline of LGBTQ history, including the 1959 Cooper Do-nuts riot and the 1967 New Year’s Eve raid on the Black Cat Tavern ― both in L.A., and both of which many Angelenos would argue marked the “real” birth of the modern gay movement, rather than the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York.

Robert Clement, 94, a senior at the Center, remembers Stonewall well. He and his partner, John Noble, were living in the West Village at the time and walking to their apartment when they heard a big ruckus. “John went to go investigate and came back to say that a bunch of gays were doing high kicks at the police, and I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m interested in that,’” he said, laughing. “So we kept moving.”

But Clement, a lifelong activist, is no bystander. An ordained priest, he founded the Church of the Beloved Disciple in Manhattan in 1968, the first major apostolic and sacramental church for the LGBTQ community in New York. The space became a meeting ground for early LGBTQ organizations like the Gay Activists Alliance, as well as the all-male dance troupe Les Ballet Trocadero. The film historian Vito Russo was an altar boy. With Noble, Clement celebrated the first ever “Holy Union” at the Church of the Beloved Disciple in July 1970.

In the ’80s, the couple moved to San Diego to enjoy the warmer climate. They were together for 43 years, until Noble died in 2003. Clement, on his own, decided he wanted to be in a larger city where he hoped there would be support and community. He moved to Los Angeles, where he found that a good part of his savings went to his $2,000-plus rent.

Fortunately, Clement landed an apartment at Triangle Square, a senior affordable housing complex in Hollywood also founded by the Center. The staff introduced him to David Epstein, 69, to show him around.

“Robert had a bit of an emotional collapse after the loss of his lover, so we had that in common ― the whole feeling of depression and anxiety that had stayed with us all these years,” Epstein says. The two became close friends.

Epstein had moved to Los Angeles in 2003 as well, on the verge of expiration. Like many of today’s LGBTQ seniors, he was a survivor of a culture that wanted him erased, and was in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder. “I have been in the community for 50 years. I made it through the ’70s and ’80s, I made it through the plague. But by the mid-’90s, I had two deaths back to back, two lovers of mine, one by suicide,” he remembers. “I had a complete collapse.”

He was living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, near a right-wing militia training ground, ostracized and shunned. “I knew I was going to die if I did not do something really radical, so I came out here, suicidally ill.”

Epstein found an apartment in Silver Lake and forced himself to take the bus to the Center nearly every day to play bingo and go to art and exercise classes. “But mostly,” he says, “it was connecting with other people. Social isolation is as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day... The LGBT Center saved my life.”

As an activist in the ’70s, Epstein remembers going to his first gay liberation meeting at 21. In 1973, when he was 23, he attended the now-famous rally in New York where Sylvia Rivera gave her powerful speech laying out for people how the movement was failing the poor and trans communities.

He also remembers coming across an article about the Stonewall anniversary march in 1970. “I’m looking down and there’s a photograph of a priest... a priest in full vestment... carrying a sign. I remember it saying ‘Gay is Good,’ but it really said, ‘Gays This is Your Church.’” A few years into their friendship, Epstein realized that “the person in the photograph was Robert. All these years later we’re best buddies.”

Epstein and Clement are hoping to live together and move into a larger apartment at Triangle Square, because Epstein is being priced out of his apartment in Silver Lake. Like many major U.S. cities, Los Angeles is facing an acute housing crisis, brought on by a perfect storm of luxury development, rent increases and income inequality. And while the area saw a decrease in homelessness in 2018 for the first time in years, homelessness rose by 22% among Angelinos 62 and older.

“When the 2008-9 housing crisis hit, a lot of developers came in and grabbed the land. Now you’re seeing the results of that,” said Tripp Mills, deputy director of senior services at the Center. “The affordable is getting squeezed out.”

Paired with this statistic is the added discrimination facing LGBTQ seniors. A 2014 study by the Equal Rights Center in Washington found that 48% of lesbian, gay and bisexual households encountered housing discrimination. The sad truth is that many LGBTQ elders go back in the closet when they enter senior facilities. A 2011 survey found that just 22% of LGBTQ aging adults felt they could be open about their sexual identity in a nursing home or assisted living facility.

Giving Youth Legs To Stand On

A neon sign at the reception area of the Center’s youth wing reads “You Are Beautiful.” Past the front desk is a large lounge with a television and plenty of comfortable tables and chairs. In mid-May, this area was crowded with young people watching TV, checking the computers and talking.

On the first floor of the facility is a shelter with 40 emergency beds, which are always full. The Center’s former youth facility in Hollywood only had 26 beds, which were also always full.

“We intentionally built an iconic structure that would look as beautiful as this, because we believe all of these people deserve it by virtue of being a human being.”

- Darrel Cummings

On the upper floors is the transitional living program ― singles, doubles and quads that resemble new dorms in expensive universities, some with private bedrooms linked to kitchenettes and bathrooms. Two weeks after opening, the Center is still in the process of filling them. “Given our population, and the fluidity of gender identity and expression, separating our youth members by gender really makes no sense,” said Simon Costello, director of the Center’s children, youth and family services.

The wing also hosts the Ariadne Getty Foundation Youth Academy, which offers programs for high school completion, vocational training and post-secondary education. The Youth Employment Program next door offers resume-writing clinics, mock interview workshops and a closet with donated clothing for interviews. There’s also a computer lab and a sound studio with rainbow-colored wall guards. So far, there is a 100% graduation rate for students getting their GEDs.

The mission is to give these young people legs to stand on. “We’ve found that it takes time for our youth members to learn lifelong skills, lead a stable life and become a success story,” Costello said. “Previously, we would ask young people ― from day one ― where they planned to work. Many of them did not have any idea what was possible, let alone what they wanted to do. Our program gives youth the time and space to work with staff towards individual, self-directed career and educational goals that lead to long-term independence.”

More than 40 formerly homeless youth from the Center’s programs now attend a two- to four-year college. “We were told that... the best you can do is get them in some kind of trade, entry-level liquor store job,” Costello said. “But they will work with you. You are safe here, there is food here. We have internships, employers, education.”

From youth homelessness and violence to health care and housing for an aging population, the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s new campus addresses a wide swath of today’s LGBTQ struggles. It’s doing so on a much grander scale than Clement’s church in 1968, but it’s still the kind of community-based activism that is as old as the movement.

“Something that needs doing, you do,” Clement said. “It’s amazing what you can achieve if you get a little angry and annoyed.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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