Showing its pride

Grand Rapids Pride Center looks toward future.
As executive director, Thomas Pierce is ready to move the Grand Rapids Pride Center forward. Courtesy Grand Rapids Pride Center

In a way, the Grand Rapids Pride Center has come out of the closet. The 32-year-old organization has served the queer community since its founding in 1988 from its home at 343 Atlas Ave. SE in Eastown, but for years the building had a tucked-away feeling with windows blacked out and a shabby interior that felt more depressing than affirming.

Today, the windows are streaming light into a more vibrant space that now has a comfortable waiting room with a couch and coffee table, giving it more of a living room feel than an office vibe. The library is equipped with computers and bookcases filled with books that document LGBTQ history, and both spaces are decked out with furniture donated by Steelcase. The large gathering space in the back of the building offers comfortable seating that easily can be rearranged to fit the needs of the many different social groups that meet throughout the month at the center.

It’s a sign of the times. The culture has shifted. Gay marriage and the fight for that right drastically changed the LGBTQ experience. So much so, that some people wonder if LGBTQ spaces are as necessary as they once were. The answer is yes. Queer people always will need dedicated spaces, particularly those whose identities are still maligned more often than not in society, like transgender and nonbinary persons and LGBTQ people of color.

The Pride Center (formerly known as The Network) celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018 with a massive Pride celebration at Calder Plaza. That milestone meant looking back. Seeing where the Pride Center had been and acknowledging the struggles the center has faced.

At the time, the center was in the midst of some serious financial challenges, so much so there was a question of whether the organization could or should continue.

So, in 2019, Thomas Pierce, Pride Center executive director, said the Pride Center staff and board focused on stability.

The year was a turning point for the organization. Pierce said the center is now poised for the future. This year, the Pride Center is looking at where and how to grow. Listening sessions are planned to help the center develop a strategic plan and direction.

“We are now stable, and I feel we can begin to look to the future,” said Tommy Allen, interim board president for the Pride Center. “We are listening to the community, being intentional.”

Tommy Allen, interim board president, stands next to a poster from the 1987 March On Washington for lesbian and gay rights. The poster hangs in the pride center’s office. Courtesy Grand Rapids Pride Center

Most likely that will include more health care and wellness services. The LGBTQ community suffers from terrible health outcomes, often due to discrimination or fear of discrimination. People are afraid to seek services, or they don’t have the financial ability to seek out care.

“Proud To Be Healthy is our health access program,” Pierce explained. “When I started over two years ago, and I started asking people what we needed to do, people overwhelmingly asked for more health care access.

“How do we develop communities where in the future it’s easier for queer folk to be healthy,” Pierce asked. “We recognized we had to develop some intervention-based programs because people aren’t getting any healthier. We launched Proud To Be Healthy; its main mode is to intervene. People can come and get a service to help. Leslie, our Proud To Be Healthy coordinator, they are trained to register people for Marketplace, Medicaid, etc.”

When Grand Rapids Magazine spoke to the Pride Center this spring, it was in the middle of hiring a clinician to provide clinically based services and support groups. “This person will also provide free therapy for someone who needs therapeutic services,” Pierce said. A local family foundation provided the grant money to fund the position.

“We are getting more and more complaints from folks receiving therapy,” Pierce said. “One disturbing one was this person was seeing a therapist and realized within a month they were doing some subtle conversion therapy.”

“We are now stable, and I feel we can begin to look to the future.”
Tommy Allen

Pierce said he hopes continued work with local health care systems will lead to solutions.

“Health equity and health care disparities are something we are going to have to continue to work through. We host the LGBTQ health care consortium here at the Pride Center.” He said the consortium includes representatives from all the major health care systems, mental health care providers and health care nonprofits in the area.

“We are trying to figure out how to work together and reduce health care disparities for queer folks (by) formalizing that into an actual group that will be housed here at the Pride Center, but separate.”

Pierce compared the Pride Center’s role to providing triage services. “We don’t have a physician on site or housing on site; we connect people with services. You come here and we will help you get where you need. The things we are providing in-house that we don’t have enough people doing out there. That’s why we made such a large push to have therapy here. There’s not enough free therapy out there.”

As the Pride Center looks to the future, it also is looking at the possibility of a major renovation of its space. While the building has a fresher look and feel than in years past, it still is outdated in many ways. Pierce said discussions about a possible capital campaign are underway. That could result in a full refresh of the existing space as well as an addition to the building.

“We’d like to expand that space and make it a clinic,” Pierce said.

Future plans also include finding new ways to connect with different groups of people. “We are looking into some programming around intersectionality — what communities are we not reaching? So, the Latinx community, we are starting to have conversations with other organizations about how we start engaging those communities because we know our organization hasn’t been the best about doing that in the past. We want to be intentional about doing that.”

And LGBTQ youth remain a priority. “In 1988, we started our youth group … that is still the same youth group we run today,” Pierce said. “The group attracts 55-60 kids each week. There is also a trans youth group for ages 12-17, a young adult group for ages 18-24 and a young adult group for people of color that operates at the nonprofit HQ.”

Pierce summed up the Pride Center’s future vision this way: “Everyone wants to be heard on some level and they are afraid they won’t be heard, so how do we create space for everyone within the work we are doing?”

How COVID-19 is impacting the Grand Rapids Pride Center’s plans for 2020
How is the current situation uniquely impacting LGBTQ+ people?
What we’re seeing now is a doubling down of the obstacles that LGBTQ+ people have faced before. While the stay-at-home orders are necessary to promote good public health as it slows the spread of COVID-19, these orders have created more barriers for LGBTQ+ folk by eliminating access to resources that were readily available before sheltering in place. GRPC is working at the very base level via our digital social spaces to intently listen to our LGBTQ+ folk, who are in large numbers isolated and alone.

Is the Pride Center using online tools to convene its social groups?
GRPC has reimagined and migrated nearly all of our social and support groups to an online format.

How will this impact the Proud To Be Healthy program and the newly created clinician position?
We’re happy to say that the Proud To Be Healthy program is operating fully in a virtual space. Community members can make an appointment at Our community wellness coordinator position is currently on hold as we evaluate next steps on an operational and financial level.

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