A place for us

Seven years in the making, a new LGBT community center just opened. The people behind the scenes explain why Reno needed one.

B, left, is one of many teens to whom Meredith Tanzer has lent advice, support, and resources over the years.

B, left, is one of many teens to whom Meredith Tanzer has lent advice, support, and resources over the years.

Photo/Kris Vagner

Our Center, the new LGBT community center, is located at 1745 S. Wells Ave. For more information, visit www.buildourcenter.org or drop by.

“I saw one of the planes hit the building,” said Meredith Tanzer. It was September 11, the day terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. She was in New York on a business trip. She flew home to San Francisco, where she was a marketing director for a dot-com, and found that, suddenly, living in a big city felt a little more dangerous than it had before. The business flights on her calendar suddenly seemed a little more risky. It was one of those moments in life when a hard reboot seemed like the best thing to do. In 2002, she quit her job and moved to Reno. She had a couple of other reasons for a change of pace as well.

“I had been working crazy hours,” she said. “I didn’t have time to give back. I could send organizations a check, but that’s not the same.”

To Tanzer, a petite 45-year-old with purple-streaked hair, giving back was a big deal. She’d been a volunteer for over a dozen years, and the experience of helping others had opened doors she’d never imagined.

She’d grown up in Marin County, moved to San Francisco “at 19 or so,” with a boyfriend, and found the industriousness of the city’s culture thrilling.

“Every other person you talked to was doing something to impact the world,” she said with the excitement of that discovery still fresh in her voice a quarter century later.

Tanzer dived into city life headfirst. She worked with a film company and a clothing company. She came out as a lesbian and wrote for edgy magazines such as On Our Backs and CUIR Underground. She worked on art shows and volunteered at schools.

“By volunteering you get to meet really cool other people,” she said. “I got to run an event for Comedy Central when I was 23 at The Warfield. I was a lesbian activist. I was a fat activist. People I worked with are tremendous leaders now, that I got to learn from. I learned how to get around really difficult obstacles.”

One obstacle she’s overcome lately has been persevering through a seven-year-long effort to open a new LGBT center in Reno. Tanzer is vice president of the board of Build Our Center, a group that includes activist Jeromy Manke, who is the board’s president, and attorney Todd Eikelberger. They started raising funds and providing services to the LGBT community in 2009. They mentored an LGBT youth group without a home base, meeting in coffee shops and people’s houses. They kept their supplies in a donated storage space in Sparks.

Last year, the group received a sustaining grant from the Norris-Rocaberte Family Foundation. The Norris-Rocabertes are a family of two dads and six children who’ve backed groups such as the Nevada Gay Men’s Chorus and Reno Pops Orchestra. For Build Our Center, the foundation funding was the game changer that allowed the group to rent a permanent space.

The new facility is called Our Center. It opened April 30 in a cheery storefront on Wells Avenue that used to house the Boy Scouts of America office. The opening was preceded by an April 29 celebration, during which Mayor Hillary Schieve performed the ribbon cutting.

A week before the official opening, Our Center was abuzz with excitement as volunteers helped with finishing touches. Two men cranked up some dance music and painted unicorns on a door. A dad and his preschool-aged son made pinwheels for the opening-day festivities. A woman around retirement age went out to pick up cleaning supplies. There’s been a revolving door of helpers and visitors ever since.

“We had 14 people come in today,” Tanzer said a few days after the opening. “One guy came in to check out the library. A couple people are hosting meetings. Some guy came and cleaned graffiti off our building and reorganized a closet.”

The 3,000 square-foot space has a boardroom, a classroom, an art room, a kitchenette, any-gender restrooms, a tiny library, a lounge designated for kids’ and families’ events, a front reception area with racks of Our Center t-shirts for sale and a desk staffed by either Tanzer or one of dozens of volunteers.

Plans for the immediate future include yoga classes, bingo nights and providing meeting space for groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or PFLAG. (That acronym used to mean “Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.” Categorizations regarding orientation have evolved to be more inclusive, and the group’s tagline is now “Parents, Families, Friends and Allies United with LGBTQ People to move equality forward” while the official name remains PFLAG.)

Also, said Tanzer, Our Center is a venue for anyone who wants to interact with the community in a public place. She’s in the process of getting a feel for what people most need and scheduling events accordingly. Possibilities include counseling sessions, underage karaoke, building a facility for television and podcast production, or just showing up to meet people.

“It’s largely a hangout for teens, gay, transgender, straight, whatever,” Tanzer said. “The kids want to plan a dance.” She’s planning to make that happen soon.

Homeless help

Volunteer Nina Toney works at the Harvey Milk Day Celebration, a

In addition to social activities, the board aims to tackle some more challenging issues. One of them is helping LGBT youth who are homeless.

Nina Toney is an outgoing 25-year-old who drops by Our Center frequently.

“I got kicked out when I was 11,” Toney said. She said the news that she was a lesbian had not sat well with her mother. She went to A Rainbow Place, Reno’s previous gay community center, which closed in 2008 due to budget constraints. She said a staff member there housed her for about a year until Toney’s mother asked her to return home.

“Two years later, she kicked me out again,” said Toney. “It was just, like, a vicious fucking cycle. When I was a minor, I was probably kicked out of my house seven times for being gay.”

Eventually, Toney said, another Rainbow Place staffer gained legal custody of her.

She credits those mentors for her “being here today” and for encouraging her to stay in school.

“I was like, all’ y’all people with experience and all y’all who went to college and stuff, I want to drop out of high school,” she said. “Let me go talk to you guys. Because I know that I shouldn’t quit. But I want to. But I know I probably shouldn’t, but I want you to tell me why I shouldn’t.”

Her mentors told her, “You’re better than that.”

Toney graduated from Wooster High School in 2010. Now she has her own apartment and a dog, and she works as a cook. Like many at the center, she found that a difficult youth translated into a desire to help others.

“I’ve become somewhat of a stable adult,” she said. “I can help people. I’m here now. Any time they need help, I’m like, ring-a-dang me. I’m here. I’ll be there as quick as possible.”

To Tanzer, one of the most important things Our Center can offer its youngest visitors is encouragement from Toney and other adults.

“These kids, I just want them to know that they could do whatever they want,” Tanzer said. “There’s someone there. I’ll cheer you on. I’ll find other people to cheer you on. If I can’t do it, Andy [a volunteer] can yell at you for not going to school. Nina can check in to say, ’You got an A! That’s fantastic!’ or ’You went to prom; let me see your pictures,’ and you just feel taken care of, and like you’re part of something.”

“I try to make an appearance two or three times a week,” Toney said.

The bigger picture

Toney hasn't been the only LGBT teen in recent memory in need of stable housing. Tanzer used to run an arty boutique on First Street called La Bussola, and when A Rainbow Place closed, the shop served as a de facto youth center.

“I’m passionate because of the homeless statistics for the LGBT community, but after having La Bussola and how many kids I dealt with down there that would hang out at my shop that didn’t have a place to live or didn’t have parents to watch over them, I realized what a huge problem it was,” she said. “The kids would come to me all the time. They would want me to bring them home. Sometimes I did bring them home. I’m not allowed to do that anymore though.”

She and Toney listed the places they’ve known teens to spend the night—a friend’s house, an alley, a sofa, under a bridge, an open garage where they walked in and threw something down just for the night, any place dry.

Tanzer said the city needs “an emergency shelter, a group home. There isn’t one. Even a foster care home. That doesn’t exist for LGBT kids. Those kids need a place to talk about things.”

benefit for Our Center.

Photo/Kris Vagner

Nationwide, about 30-40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. In Reno, it’s 23 percent, according to the Homeless Youth Point In Time Count survey, conducted in January by the Nevada Youth Empowerment Project and Build Our Center.

When Tanzer tells stories of the young people she’s worked with, there’s love in her voice and a beaming smile on her face. She said it’s been a challenge to determine exactly what she can and can’t realistically do for the teens who need the most help.

Buy them a water? Yes. Take them home? No. “Yell at the mayor and attend HUD meetings” in an effort to secure more services for homeless teens? Definitely.

Teens' identity

A 16-year-old with gauged ears settled onto the angular, black couch in Our Center's blue and fuchsia children's room to talk about some of the challenges he's faced as an LGBT teen. At that moment he looked like a boy. At a recent dance at a senior center and on his YouTube channel he'd worn long hair and makeup and identified as a girl.

“I have gone back and forth in my between gender identity, between identifying as trans and identifying as androgynous,” he said. “I’ve gone by many names. I’ve gone by Brandon. I’ve gone by Star. Bridgette. Violet. All the names in the book. Meredith just calls me B.”

After struggling since age 13 with with depression, identity disorder and a strained relationship with family members, there are a few things B has settled on. He wants to be a cosmetologist. He wants to be in a documentary on transgender people. And he wants to teach a makeup class at Our Center.

B is one of a few dozen teens Tanzer began mentoring during the La Bussola years, through an LGBT youth group called the Homies.

Referring to the teens in her group, some of whom would spend time on the River Walk, Tanzer said, “It drove me crazy; people would refer to them as ’river rats.’ How are you going to succeed when you have adults in positions of authority calling you names?”

The Homies responded to the name calling by meeting bi-weekly to pursue projects that, as Tanzer put it, “got them appreciated for being young and creative.” They painted an electrical box in front of Grassroots Books. They created a float for Northern Nevada Pride. They hosted a country and western-themed dance for Washoe County Senior Services.

“We did a little workforce development,” Tanzer said. She set up B with an internship at a salon.

“Just getting out there in the community is what helped me get out of my depression and other disorders,” B said. “Having the support of other people in the group just really helped me. If it wasn’t for Meredith I would not be here. I would not.”

B has become something of a spokesperson for Our Center’s ideas about community members supporting each other. He said that over the last few years he went “from not wanting to be on this planet anymore to performing onstage and doing parades with the mayor and being on the radio.”

Sea change

By many accounts, the opening of Our Center is part of a sea change, and a lot has improved for the LGBT community.

“When I was little, the only gay person I knew was Martina Navratilova, the tennis player,” Tanzer said. “And I didn’t want to be gay because I didn’t like that way she dressed.” Since then, she said, “Ellen has come out, Bruce Jenner, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” She believes having mainstream figures come out did a lot to improve acceptance of the LGBT community nationally.

And locally, she said, “I can tell you, 14 years ago, when I had my shop, I got hate letters every single day, and churches came to pray over me, and people told me I was going to hell—every week.” Now, she said, “We have 12 affirming churches.” She credits Kathy Baldock who she called, “a straight, evangelical, Christian woman, the Oprah of gay acceptance.” Baldock runs an organization in Reno called Canyonwalker Connections, whose mission is “repairing the breach between the Church and LGBT community.”

Tanzer said she’s changed too, since living in Reno. “People here are passionate, connected and loving,” she said. “That did something for my constitution. I’ve always volunteered. But doing that here, I’ve had people tell me no, but never so much to totally squash me.”

There are still teens who need support and housing, and she plans to keep advocating for them.

“I’m just going to keep talking,” she said, “and eventually you get something done.”

As for Our Center’s next steps, that’s up to the community. Tanzer said, “It’ll be cool to see what develops out of here. It’ll be interesting to see what people come here to create.”