For many, the need to feel included is as necessary for life as having a roof over their head and food on their table. The Pride Community Center in Johnson City, Tennessee, offers just that to members of the LGBTQ community, and uses art as a way to raise funds to support their work.
John Baker is one of the co-founders of the center, which opened in 2012.
“The national average of people in the LGBT community is around 21% of the population,” said Baker. “In our area, because of the simple fact that the cost of living is so much less than the rest of the country, we have a higher LGBT community, so there are over 27% that we estimate. If you take east Tennessee with a population of over 500,000, that's over 100,000 people that identify LGBT whether they live their lives out or not.”
According to the 2013 National School and Climate Survey, the LGBTQ community is at high risk of suffering from depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. For these people, having a sense of community is imperative for them to thrive in the world outside of it. In addition to being verbally harassed about their sexual orientation or identity by their family and friends, members of the LGBT community have also reported being physically assaulted for their lifestyle. Baker points out that it is uncouth to talk about bedroom lives in general, and that it is improper to discuss people’s sexual habits in a professional setting. He says that the LGBTQ community should be extended the same courtesy as the rest of society in this aspect.
“It comes back to treating people with respect,” said Baker. “Hopefully you have respect, understanding and love in your heart and accept people as they are, no matter what they are.”
LGBTQ people express fear for their safety being in public while open about their sexuality and gender identity. The center has high hopes for the future, with plans of building a halfway house for LGBT people who have been kicked out of their homes with no other place to stay. They hope to be able to stock the halfway house with changes of clothes, food and other essential items until the scorned individual can get back on their feet. Baker states that being able to provide new clothes for trans-identifying individuals is an important step in helping those people feel more like themselves by providing them with the clothes of the gender that they identify with.
Not everyone involved with the PCC is a member of the LGBTQ community.
Magee Little is a heterosexual woman and a member of the board at the PCC. Though she does not identify as a member of the community, Little has observed hostile treatment and disrespect toward people she is close with. Little has made it her mission to represent the community as an outsider and enlighten other cisgender men and women who may hold prejudices against the LGBTQ community.
“I am under the belief system that you live and let live, you judge not, lest you be judged, and that love should be the forward-facing emotion, thought and process in people's hearts and lives,” said Little. “It's important for me to be a heterosexual in a community who puts my heart forward and says ‘I love you, no matter your sex or identity.’”
In addition to the cost of future plans, running a small organization is never cheap, especially when that organization was scheduled to open just before a global pandemic shut businesses down across the world. The organization is not funded by the government and therefore requires private funds acquired by members. In spite of the obstacles in their way, the board members of the PCC have found a creative loophole to keep the “fun” in “fundraising”.
Evan Stephens is the fundraising and event coordinator for the PCC, as well as a member of the board. As an art student at East Tennessee State University, Stephens says that his first inclination was to incorporate something that he had experience in, namely artwork and sales, into making money for the center. After Stephens first pitched the idea of the art auction to the board for approval, the board agreed to dub the month of April as ‘artist appreciation month’.
“It’s an excellent opportunity for queer artists and ally artists to get visibility,” said Stephens. “It also allows us to raise money for the center so we can continue to have this space and create educational opportunities and compile a list of resources for people to have so that they know where they can go and be safe.”
For the event, the center accepted donations from anyone willing to donate and be featured as an artist on the PCC social media pages. Artists were asked to email Stephens with a statement of their work, a photo of themselves, as well as a general price for the piece. They were then asked to drop the work off at the PCC to be auctioned off.
The PCC is located in downtown Johnson City in a building which serves an office space for several other indoor businesses. Baker cites safety and anonymity to be the most important reasons for having their office in this location.
“In this area, if they even think you're gay that can cause problems,” said Baker. “When people come in here, they come into an area where there are multiple businesses, so nobody is necessarily going to ‘the gay place’.”
For more information on the Pride Community Center of the Tri-Cities, visit their website and follow them on social media