Inside the rainbow

A Rainbow Place lends support to the region’s gay and lesbian community

Holly Wilson, whose younger daughter is a lesbian, works with families and friends of individuals in the gay community.

Holly Wilson, whose younger daughter is a lesbian, works with families and friends of individuals in the gay community.

Photo by Deidre Pike

“You can be here,” reads a marquee at the entrance to A Rainbow Place. It’s disarmingly simple. The “you” suggests everyone; “be” is radically non-agenda-ed (when do we go somewhere to “be,” rather than to work or to buy?); and “here” implies something more than just a brick building on Saint Lawrence Avenue. It suggests that the nondescript building, nestled among bars and a used-record store, is a safety zone for teens and adults who, one way or another, don’t fit into the heterosexual paradigm.

“I wish I’d had a place like this when I was young,” says Shelly Brewster-Meredith, a volunteer at A Rainbow Place. “You feel like the freak of the world. … This is a place where people can come and see, hey, you’re not alone.”

In 1999, the year before the gay and lesbian community center came into existence, five local teens committed suicide. The teens all seemed to have had something in common.

“In December of 1999, we became aware of five teen suicides in Washoe County based on gender or sexual identity,” says Ben Felix, executive director of A Rainbow Place. “We thought we had to stop that and start a resource for teens, a safe haven … through support, crisis intervention, social engagement, positive role modeling.”

A Rainbow Place began in February 2000 as a teen resource center, a place for teens confused about their sexual identity to seek understanding, solace. The center soon morphed into a more comprehensive facility—a place for young and old, out-of-the-closet gay, fuzzily bisexual and openly transgender individuals to meet, talk with counselors and hear one another’s stories. Today, the weekly schedule underneath the “You can be here” sign sounds part college dormitory, part church: A Monday AA meeting, a Wednesday movie night, yoga on Thursdays, a Friday “stitch-and-bitch” craft night.

“Our mission is to encompass the entire well-being of the gay, lesbian and transgender population [of Washoe County],” Felix says. “We’re the first to have a physical address that serves as a lightning rod.”

“A gathering place,” Brewster-Meredith interjects.

“It’s evolved,” adds Bob Fulkerson, board secretary of A Rainbow Place. “As more funding comes in, as the community points out gaps.”

A Rainbow Place offers free HIV testing, women’s wellness clinics, proms for teens, diversity dances and myriad support groups. Brewster-Meredith also has a gift and art shop within A Rainbow Place called Family Connections. And leaders go out into the community to tell folks, especially teens, about the center.

“We actively promote, going out to Job Corps, going out to coffee shops where a lot of kids congregate,” Felix says.

But the center isn’t just a place to deal with identity issues, Felix says. Its offerings are geared toward the remedying of human issues, not just “queer” issues.

“Domestic violence is very present in our community, as well as the use of substances, and a large population are mending [from substance abuse],” Felix says. “There are young folk who were tossed out …”

Felix, Brewster-Meredith and Fulkerson say they have watched many teens walk through their doors filled with fear and self-doubt, then slowly open themselves up to A Rainbow Place’s accepting environment. One 16-year-old boy began coming to the center more than a year ago, after he discovered its Web site, He arrived with no friends and no social life.

“He would take the bus in from Sparks,” Felix says. “He would use the resources [on sexual identity] to figure out questions he was afraid to ask. We just tried to be an anchor for him.”

Felix and Brewster-Meredith say that now the once-lonely teen from Sparks is so at home at A Rainbow Place that he provides for the needs of newcomers by showing them around the facility, making them feel welcome.

“He’s become a leader,” Felix says.

Felix, Brewster-Meredith and Fulkerson are all enthusiastic about A Rainbow Place. But at the mention of the center’s political involvement, the three sit up a little straighter. When it comes to Question 2—the initiative on this fall’s ballot that, if passed, would define marriage in Nevada as an institution that can unite only a man and a woman—the three are unequivocally passionate. And frustrated. And hopeful.

“How does [gay or lesbian] marriage impact anyone else?” asks Brewster-Meredith, who has herself exchanged vows with a partner. “And the state makes out because they get our taxes, marriage license fees.”

“We’re a very civil libertarian state, a big government hands-off state,” Fulkerson adds, noting that such an amendment to the state constitution would be uncharacteristically restrictive.

Brewster-Meredith draws attention to Question 2’s most obvious problem.

“It’s redundant,” she says. “[The state constitution] already says marriage is between a man and a woman of a certain age.”

Leaders at A Rainbow Place are doing their part to raise awareness by speaking out in the community about Question 2. Two years ago, when the question first appeared on the ballot, the center’s leaders squared off against Janine Hansen, reigning queen of the Nevada Families Eagle Forum, in a Truckee Meadows Community College government class. This year, Hansen declined a TMCC debate, but A Rainbow Place visited the class on its own.

“They wanted to understand what the hubbub was about,” Felix says of the teens. “They didn’t understand the language [on the ballot]. We made it clear that our community was not trying to emulate a dysfunctional institution. Over 50 percent of marriages end in divorce; over 75 percent are dysfunctional in some form. The institution of marriage as it is presented doesn’t exist.”

But things are looking up. Question 2 passed with about 70 percent of the vote in 2000, but polls show support has dropped 10 to 15 percent, Felix says. And Question 2 provides the opportunity to converse with the public about gays and gay marriage.

“Every group we’ve ever done a presentation at, whether it be doctors or teens in high school, one of the first questions we ask is, ‘How many know [gays or lesbians]?' Invariably, everyone raises their hand," Felix says. "Six years ago, that would not have been, and I think that’s incredible. … It’s isn’t a hidden, subterranean topic anymore."