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Saving Sanctuary

The city’s gay community center is in danger of closing.



The Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC) has offered refuge for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) locals since 1989. But that safe space may soon be forced to close if the center doesn't raise some serious funds.

Struggling to meet its $125,000 budget requirement, the center is asking for donations to keep it afloat. "We need $45,000 by the end of May," said executive director Will Batts. "We've got a good start, but we still have quite a ways to go."

Batts said the financial situation began looking grim last year: "Since 2008, we've had [one paid] employee and a much greater breadth of programs in the building. Our expenses have been going up."

The center in the Cooper-Young neighborhood serves as a meeting place for support and social groups, as well as hosting free HIV testing, workshops, and art exhibits. The group also serves as a safe haven for LGBT youth through its biweekly Queer As Youth meetings and a housing program for homeless and troubled kids.

For 19 of the center's 22 years in existence, it was a volunteer-run organization with a lean budget. When the organization finally purchased the building at 892 S. Cooper in 2005, board members decided it was time to hire an executive director.

"We incurred a cost for the building and for its upkeep. It's 99 years old, so it always has something that needs fixing," Batts said. "About that same time, we decided that in order for us to be more

effective and more organized, we needed somebody to be here all the time to run programs. We decided that I would move from the board into this paid position."

The building's maintenance and the paid director position required a new funding model; one Batts is still working to sort out. Although longtime benefactor Herb Zemen, who helped purchase the building, has offered to match half of the $45,000 goal, Batts said he hopes to raise well over that amount.

"Part of what we need to move away from is depending on one or two people to do the bulk of the support," Batts said. "The annual giving will be the model that sustains us, but we need a larger pool of people supporting this place. Even if it's a small amount, in a large pool, it's stable and sustainable.

The center has a new development team, which will devote its time to working with donors.

"There are no other seriously supportive groups that I know of," Batts said. "There's a lot of recreational groups. There's a couple of gay bowling leagues. There's a gay softball league. There's a gay square dance organization. But we're the only agency focusing on social service and support issues. And we're kind of it for several hundred miles in every direction."

MGLCC also serves southeast Missouri, East Tennessee, and parts of Mississippi and Arkansas. Batts estimates that the center counsels between 500 and 800 people a month.

"I had an email from an eighth grader who lives in a small town near Knoxville," Batts said. "He lives in a town of less than 1,000 people, and he just doesn't have any resources. He found us on the internet."

A resource like that can be the difference between life and death for some LGBT youth, who are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to a recent report in Pediatrics.

"The community center saves lives," Batts said. "Dozens of people have said to me, if I hadn't found the MGLCC, I'm not sure that I would be here."

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