RALEIGH, N.C. — Not even five years old, the LGBT Center of Raleigh has nonetheless experienced its fair share of milestones. Those involved credit the group’s leaders’ and volunteers’ commitment for its accomplishments.
“One of the great things I’ve noticed about the Center is that everyone involved is no nonsense and have a ‘get things done’ attitude,” says Alex Wall, the volunteer coordinator of the Center’s M Club program. “Things move at a fast pace here.”
Wall couldn’t have said it more aptly.
The LGBT Center of Raleigh started with its initial planning and fundraising in 2008. By 2009, it made its official debut to the community. In February 2010, the Center found its first home, joining with Triangle Community Works to share office and programming space. Soon thereafter, the group hired its first executive director, Bobby Hilburn, and later announced a merger between it and Triangle Community Works.
Since then, the Center has found a new home on Hillsborough St. and has rolled out a series of successful programs, including its popular Gay and Gray initiative and its first-ever OutRaleigh Festival. The Pride-like event was a first for the state capital, attracting thousands.
This year, the Center faces new milestones as Hilburn prepares to depart for new professional opportunities in October. That’s the same month the group will host its first Raleigh is Coming Out awards dinner.
For the past three years, the Center has hosted some sort of event in October in recognition of National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11. Last year, the group presented its first awards.
“We decided to really make our event this year about the award winners,” Hilburn says.
The event will be hosted on Oct. 7 (see our Q Events Calendar for more).
Programs provide support
Among the Center’s more popular programs is its M Club. Wall started the initiative as an independent project in 2008. It eventually became a project of Triangle Community Works. When that group merged with the Center, M Club came under its auspices.
Wall says he started off with a simple Myspace page.
“I invited people to become friends on that,” he says. “Then we started an email listserv and it grew through word of mouth and friends becoming interested through the internet.”
At the core of the program’s mission is its focus on providing healthy, community-building social opportunities for young gay and bi men ages 18-30. As an affiliate of the national Mpowerment Project, the local program also functions as an HIV awareness, prevention and education group.
“We provide different social, educational and community service events to provide people opportunities for making friends, meeting other guys and having an alternative the bar scene,” Wall, 28, explains. “M Club events are also drug, alcohol and hookup free. That’s an important thing if you don’t want to be around that thing or have to be in a meat-market atmosphere that happens in the bars and also in some other gay organizations or groups.”
He adds, “Some people just want to be themselves and have an environment were they are accepted for who they are not on how good they look or who you like or dislike.”
M Club hosts several events each month. Those have included movie nights, discussion groups, bowling and dinner parties. They’ve also worked together in community service and fundraising projects.
“We do just about anything a normal group of friends would go out and do,” he says. “We just do it as a bigger group.”
Wall stresses that positive social environments and interactions can provide opportunities to empower young men.
“It’s really important to have people supporting you and building you up, instead of tearing you down or getting you involved in dangerous activities,” he says.
The M Club helps fulfill its HIV awareness and prevention promise, Wall explains, by helping young men not engage in self-destructive behaviors.
Hilburn thinks the M Club is important for both the Center and the greater Raleigh community.
“It’s got a big focus on safe sex and healthy lifestyles,” he says, crediting Wall for the group’s continued growth. “Alex is doing a phenomenal job at growing it and advertising it to its target audience and making it into a diverse group.”
Hilburn says the Center is thinking about mirroring the concept in a group targeted toward women.
Community participation on rise
Hilburn says groups like M Club and the Center’s other programs are constantly bringing new people and new voices into the life of the organization.
“Over the last year, the Center has grown phenomenally not only through our programs but through community participation,” he says. “We’ve seen an increase in the numbers and the diversity of people who attend our events.”
Among the group’s other new projects and programs is a nascent transgender task force. Hilburn says the group will provide a space for discussion and organization for members of Raleigh’s and the Triangle’s trans community.
“It’s an opportunity for individuals to get together and figure out what their needs are, whether its support or social or a place where they can feel safe to come out,” he says. “We’re excited about reaching out and being inclusive of the trans community.”
Several Center volunteers and board members are already involved in trans community outreach, Hilburn adds.
The Center will also soon open its new library. They’ve collected over 1,000 books — all donated — and developed a true library check-out system. “A real library,” Hilburn says. “You even get a library card.”
At their awards dinner this year, Hilburn will help honor two worthy recipients: Former pastor Jimmy Creech and Triangle Black Pride’s Akil Campbell. Then, sadly, he’ll say goodbye and step down from his executive director’s role. He’s determined to make it a positive departure; in fact, he’s looking forward to seeing even more growth and success in the Center’s future.
“I can only see us continuing to grow in the future as we keep developing our programs more and more so that we are reaching individuals and providing programs that are both social and support,” he says. : :