When I arrived at the LGBT Center on a Friday morning, the building was locked, the glass in one of the front doors was shattered, and plywood covered the opening. I texted Ruth McFarlane; she came down to let me in. The computer area in the main lobby was cordoned off. “We had a problem here on Wednesday. A guy at a computer, he must have been on something, went after another person. We managed to get him outside, but he broke the glass trying to get back in. We’re all a little shell-shocked.”
The LGBT Center is open to anyone. That’s a good thing. But as San Francisco’s street population expands up Market Street toward the Castro, the Center has to balance open access with providing a safe place for the LGBT community. Before Ruth and I even settled into our seats to discuss tomorrow, I’d witnessed how San Francisco’s gaping inequality threatens the Center’s mission.
“What I get passionate about is the nitty-gritty of people’s lives. What is their story? In law, you don’t do that. You craft pieces to fit the narrative you want.” Ruth McFarlane is an accomplished drifter. Born in Toronto, Ruth spent her childhood with missionary parents in Africa. She came to the US at fourteen, studied law, and spent six years as an international tax attorney in New York. She about faced her practice and geography by going to South Africa to work with a legal resource center. When she still wasn’t getting the stories she craved, she abandoned law and got a Masters in Social Work, worked in affordable housing, and moved to San Francisco in 2014 to be Director of Programs for the LGBT Center. “This is a dream job for me; supporting my staff and developing programs to meet the needs of this community.”
San Francisco has had openly gay organizations since the 1960’s, though the LGBT Center was not officially formed until the 1990’s. I asked Ruth whether, as time and tolerance progress, the Center might become unnecessary. “We see an ongoing need for the Center, though its role keeps changing.” San Francisco is a transient city, and a magnet for gay people. The Center supports many gay youth. “Thirty percent of the of homeless in San Francisco identify as LGBT; forty percent of the homeless teens. At the same time, more elderly are coming out, and they need support and services.”
How does AIDS figure into the Center’s work? “AIDS is less of a program focus, but from a cultural perspective, it is inescapable.” The LGBT Center doesn’t provide medical or other direct ADIS services. Their AIDS focus is intergenerational. Older people, the guys who fought for rights and survived the plague, have an important perspective for younger people, who may underestimate the impact of the disease.
The LGBT Center is at the leading edge of how we establish personal identity. “Youth are identifying as GBLT younger. Many are not even using those labels. They are queer or gender fluid.” As a person with multiple identities, Ruth prefers the term ‘queer’. Every meeting at the LGBT Center begins with a pronoun check-in. Many use ‘they’ as a singular. “We need an ungendered third person singular.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“In terms of the LGBT Center’s future, we are starting a significant renovation of this building to create space that will be more sustainable over time. We are going to manifest our commitment to connection among all people: this will be yet more difficult in a world of increasing disparity.
“From a personal perspective, living in San Francisco makes me pessimistic. We are going to confront disparities that boggle our current mind. Economic and resource inequalities will shape our lives, our families, and our society. Our income inequality is stark but there is memory loss because there’s so much transience in this city. We confront human misery every day on Market Street. There is no way we can confront that without being changed. Whether you intervene or not, you are changed.”