As I sit in the Seven Rivers LGBT Resource Center, dubbed “The Center” by all who have come to think of it as a second home, I am in awe of the people who surround me. I have been attending The Center since I was 13 years old. I have seen members come and go, but always, this spectacular group of people has buoyed and educated me. We all have very different experiences and backgrounds, but we are able to learn from one another and care for one another.
I remember first walking through the doors as an awkward middle schooler, and immediately feeling comfortable and safe in this new space. There were rainbows everywhere, on banners and flags, even on the ceiling, where the members had marked their own hand prints in paint and written their names. What caught my eye though, were the collages on the walls. The members of GALAXY, Gay Alliance of La Crosse Youth, had made “self-love” collages. The woman in charge of The Center at the time told me that she had asked them to put together a collage, torn from magazines and newspapers, of the things they loved, and the things they loved about themselves; the interests, values, and gifts that they thought made them fabulous individuals.
At The Center, they never stop teaching the value of self-love and self-respect. No matter how many things in the media and in the outside world are telling these youth that a fundamental part of who they are is wrong, they can at least know they have a safe space where others recognize the beauty in them and where they can explore that beauty in themselves.
For some people, The Center is the only space for them to be validated and loved for everything they are. Talking to people and realizing this heightened my awareness of issues that I had not necessarily faced. I learned how people struggle with hateful and even violent home situations, different socioeconomic statuses, and different sexual orientations and gender identities.
At The Center I have had an education in gender, sexuality, and the expression of these, but above all I have learned from the people there. They have taught me the importance of community and accepting differences within that community. As a community we share common goals and ideals, and we work every day to manifest our vision: a world in which LBGTQ people are given the same human rights and respect as cisgendered and heterosexual people.
The Center came to me at a formative time in my life. It was there when I was struggling with emotions that were much bigger than my thirteen-year-old self. It was there as I began growing out of childhood and coming into my own. The Center helped me grow up with a comfort for other people’s differences. More than anything, though, The Center taught me how to lead. Since I began coming to GALAXY, I have become very involved at The Center. A few months ago I started serving as a Youth Member on the board, an experience that has shaped and developed my leadership skills. At school I took on the role of president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, beginning sophomore year, and this year I started volunteering as a teaching assistant in a program called Our Whole Lives, a sexuality curriculum known for its inclusivity. The Center made all of this possible for me. It empowered me to move into the world as a leader, educated in social justice issues and trained in working with people of different backgrounds.
The Center gives me a sense of hope. The people I talk to there every day are working to break out of society’s mold and accept and love themselves. The Center is about self-love, community and togetherness. We are pulling one another closer, because in the face of hate, communities of people only form stronger bonds.