By Cesar A Reyes
The San Diego LGBT Center, was established by a group of civic and business leaders in San Diego. It was founded with the vision of enhancing and sustaining the health and well-being of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Non-Binary, immigrant, and HIV communities in the region.
The Center’s history dates back to its early beginnings as a simple answering machine in a borrowed closet, which served as a lifeline for individuals seeking compassionate connections and support. Over the years, it has evolved into one of the largest and most vibrant LGBTQ community centers in the nation, providing a wide range of services to the community.
Today, the San Diego LGBT Center continues to serve as the anchor organization for the LGBTQ community in the region, offering various programs and services that cater to the diverse needs of different segments within the community. These services include support for men, women, youth, seniors, Transgender and Non-Binary individuals, LGBTQ Latino/a/x community members, and those living with HIV.
We chatted with Cara Dessert CEO of the San Diego LGBTQ Center:
Tell us about the history and legacy of The Center.
The San Diego LGBT Community Center is celebrating 50 years this year! Our 50th Anniversary Gala on October 14th is a celebration of our history and so much more: It’s an opportunity for all of us to envision what the next 50 years will look like and how we can build community power for decades to come. There are only a few tickets left for purchase at thecentersd.org/gala, and there is an online broadcast of the event at https://bit.ly/gala50online if you cannot attend in person! All proceeds benefit the Center’s programs and services, including our food and housing programs, HIV and STI testing, support groups and more. This anniversary is a chance to not only look back, but to celebrate 50 years of advocacy wins that have advanced the power of our community and created a space where our community can thrive, together.
How was your experience taking over the position during the Covid pandemic?
During the pandemic, The Center shifted to providing critical and emergency services and expanded our food program, housing program, and mental health program due to community need. Since our doors were closed due to the public health mandate, we took the opportunity to renovate the ground floor in the main Center building to create more community spaces and a more welcoming environment, which was direct input we received during our strategic planning process.
What has changed after reopening from the pandemic?
We launched our Black Services program in 2021 and expanded our Sexual Health and Wellness program in 2022 to add free STI screenings, and now provide free HIV and STI testing Monday-Friday, 10am-7pm. Most recently, we expanded our emergency shelter from 4 beds to 21 beds at LGBTQ Safe STAY Wellness Center, and we are preparing to increase capacity to up to 45 beds next year.
Any interesting anecdotes that come to mind or heart felt stories?
When thinking of the impact of The Center, I’m reminded of the story of Jessie. Jessie is 18 years old, shy, and kind; and he was kicked out of his last foster home when his foster parents found out he was LGBTQ. Alone and afraid, Jessie showed up at our emergency shelter, relieved to have a safe place to stay. Our housing team quickly connected Jessie to a therapist and to our youth centers, while they looked for permanent housing. Three weeks later, our team couldn’t wait to give Jessie the news: He had a permanent home at our Sunburst Youth Housing facility. He burst into tears, and so did the team, when Jessie said, “All of you have saved my life.”
We see lots of new faces in leadership positions; can you talk about the diverse growth at The Center?
Over the last few years, with the expansion of our programs and services, the staff size has also grown to provide these services to our community, and we have 115 employees today. 29% of staff identify as Transgender or Non-Binary, 38% of staff identify as Latino/a/e/x, and one third of our staff are bilingual in Spanish.
How can the community get involved?
The Center is a space where all are welcomed, valued, and supported. We are one of the oldest, largest, and most vibrant LGBTQ Community Centers in the nation. We ensure that everyone, including people from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Non-Binary, immigrant communities and people living with HIV can thrive. We do this through advocacy, providing health and social services, including housing, and providing spaces for the community to gather and celebrate together.
We have many volunteer opportunities, you can participate in our ongoing support and discussion groups, attend a special event, or get involved with our advocacy program to help us build community power in the San Diego region. You can also get involved by giving a gift to The Center to sustain the next 50 years of building a world where all LGBTQ+ people can be loved, affirmed, and supported.
Where can our readers find The Center on social media platforms?
You can find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/At.The.Center/ and on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/lgbtcenter/ as well as LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/company/san-diego-lgbt-community-center/ to connect with us on social media.