Pride 2016

Two years after Wingspan shut its doors, its programs grow and continue under the roof of the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation

Love and gratitude and pain.

All of this came in and went out through text messages on Adam Ragan's phone the morning of June 12 once news reports confirmed that 45 people were killed and 54 injured by one man with a gun at an Orlando, Florida gay night club.

The associate director of LGBTQ Initiates at the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation remembers the simple messages quickly connected him to his community after the devastating act of violence rocked LGBT communities across the country. Later that evening, as he looked across at what he estimates were close to 1,000 people gathered at a vigil on Fourth Avenue, any worry that the Tucson LGBT community was alone in its grief and fear, disappeared as he saw hundreds of allies and families gathered shoulder to shoulder.

Ragan, who joined SAAF this year, taught in the Maricopa Community College system at Glendale Community College. However, prior to SAAF, Ragan had garnered a reputation as a solid community organizer in the LGBT community, as well as local politics. He says his heart is right where it belongs at SAAF, helping with LGBT programming and reaching out to the local LGBT community and its allies.

While Orlando rocked his heart at SAAF, there were healing moments after the shooting—like the mother and her three children who stopped by the SAAF offices with homemade cookies and a card "for no other purpose than to say that she and her family stood as allies with us in our time of grief. There were many tears and happy tummies at SAAF that day. I still keep her card in my office to remind me that, even in tragedy, we in the LGBTQ community are loved."

Wingspan, moving on

The tragedy arrived almost two years after the closure of Wingspan, Tucson's beloved LGBT community center. The 25-year-old center was, for many, the heart of LGBT life and to see it come to a rocky end worried many in the community, including Ragan.

The evening vigil on Fourth Avenue, however, helped remind him that the community remained strong in the most difficult moments, even through the loss of the center that shuttered its doors in August 2014.

The months leading up to the closure were particularly difficult as program employees were fired, and a new executive director faced criticism as the center struggled to figure out how to keep the organization going. Eventually, the director was terminated reportedly due to lack of funding and board representatives insisted the center would remain open.

In the background, however, discussions began to look at the reality of the situation with the idea that SAAF might be the only logical solution to protect remaining Wingspan programs, such as the ION Youth, the Anti-Violence Prevention program and Senior Pride.

"As a community member I was alarmed that there would no longer be a safe place for youth to go. What was the best avenue forward? There was some concern that an AIDS service organization wouldn't meet the needs of the LGBT community—although there is some overlap. I was worried, but never doubted there would be a place for these programs to go," Ragan says.

Looking back, the move to merge Wingspan programs into SAAF proved successful. The programs continue and grow with about 1,500 LGBT youth served in eight different programs through ION Youth. The Anti-Violence Protection program continues to operate a hotline for those in the LGBT community experiencing domestic violence, but now includes workshops and case management. At this juncture, 73 people have sought domestic violence supports with case management and/or housing, and 34 community members and professionals have received AVP training. And Senior Pride, a volunteer group, uses SAAF as its fiscal agent to continue its work to support the LGBT senior community. Other former Wingspan-based programs using SAAF as its fiscal agent include the Multi-faith Working Group and the Latino LGBT program, Puertos Abiertos.

Queer succession plan

While Wingspan's closure was rocky, and disenchanting for many who worked and there at one time, volunteered or helped start the organization when it was a tiny space on Fourth Avenue, Ragan says the transition into SAAF is a natural fit.

"In the end, my agency is the right place for these programs to be," he says.

And while the arrival of marriage equality may seem like a great equalizer to those outside the LGBT community, Ragan says there remain difficulties for youth and others to come out, or for the aging LGBT population to navigate senior housing programs that are often geared toward the aging straight population.

"At the end of the day, it's all about family to me. We have chosen family and we are born into a family. We've had our disagreements in the LGBT community and many of those were obvious as Wingspan closed," Ragan says. "But the community also came together during those disagreements to make sure Wingspan programs were still going to be there."

Joseph Howell, director of philanthropy at Habitat for Humanity and current LGBT Chamber board president, was a member of a Wingspan development committee during its closure. The Tucson native admits it was a sad time.

"It felt sad at first. I felt like I wasn't going to enjoy what some of our older LGBT folks got to enjoy, but I also felt terrible and asked myself 'How could I have allowed this to happen on my watch?'" he says. "That's what spurred my involvement with the larger LGBT community. At the time the Wingspan development committee was the only thing I was doing. Since then my mantra has been 'Not on my watch—for seniors, youth, or our business community."

Wingspan's programing finding a home at SAAF made him feel better. He considers SAAF executive director Wendell Hicks to be a friend and mentor and was grateful the programs would be under his care.

Howell, co-chair of this year's Pride on Parade and head of the Habitat's Rainbow Build that brings the LGBT community together to build homes for deserving families, says he thinks the experience of losing Wingspan should bring about a great conversation on the future.

"Perhaps what we need is a queer succession plan, especially to grow new leaders," he says.

"I think we all get along, but we just aren't talking enough. But cultivating the next level of leaders needs to be a priority. Where are queer young professional groups? Who is going to take over for Wendell? That's what I really worry about."

SAGA moved on

During the Wingspan closure, one program under the community center's roof decided it was time to cut the fiscal strings and move out on its own—the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance.

A large focus of its programming with Wingspan focused on support groups for transgender men and women in early transition, as well as support for their spouses and families.

Erin Russ, a U.S. Navy veteran who once worked at Wingspan, now works for SAGA as director of programs, says the last six months to a year before Wingspan closed, the trans community had felt that it was being pushed out. Concerns were ignored.

"That was uncharacteristic and still is for the LGBT community, because we've always been a part of it," she says. "As we were feeling Wingspan was no longer being responsive to our needs, we realized that we would be able to work more effectively as a stand-alone organization, but still collaborate with community."

The relationship with Wingspan went back to 2004 when the young organization wondered if it should be an independent nonprofit or merge with Wingspan. Russ says at the time merging with the community center seemed like it had greater benefit for the community.

Becoming it's own nonprofit since 2014 happened because of the right mix of people who were part of SAGA at the time, such as Mikki Odawa, Michael Woodward and Abby Jensen. "The right energy and people were there. It felt like the right time," Russ says.

There are challenges, Russ says, but the organization has expanded support groups and programs, collaborating with SAAF and homeless shelters in town to train and educate staff on the transgender homeless people they serve. SAGA will do its second job fair in October, which includes training for employers on how to work with transgender employees looking at the law and models they adapt to their place of business or organization.

"Employment and housing are the two biggest issues that we've identified – along with our support groups. You can't successfully do support without a job or a place to live," she says.

Advocacy and policy work have also increased as the organization worked with Pima County officials to adult gender identity and expression as a protected employment area. Next step is working to get the county to adult a health insurance policy that provides full benefits for transgender or transitioning employees. Currently, the health plan doesn't provide transgender health care, and from SAGA's perspective, that's illegal. The same is true of the state health care package provided to state employees and those working at the University of Arizona.

Russ says the organization is also reaching out to the Tucson Police Department to provide training and education on how to best serve the transgender community. That level of training is provided to other community organizations—corporate or civic—who request a SAGA representative to speak about trans people. Russ says that that's often the most important work—helping others in the community recognize that transgender people are not different, but often similar to themselves.

"Right now our future is in our own hands, and that's exciting," she says. "When we were with Wingspan for almost 10 years, they provided us with a lot of assistance. But there was a sense of relief to be on our own and now collaborators to make the community a better place with SAAF."

The collaboration between the two organizations, she says, is positive—especially because SAAF is a true inclusive organization with several trans people on staff and others who are gender queer and nonbinary.

"SAAF was the logical place to come in and pick up where Wingspan left off. It had the fundraising staff and name recognition. It wasn't an easy time for everyone, but I think what's taken place the past two years has proven that," she says.

Ragan says he's all about collaboration and recognizing the need to build a true friendship with SAGA and its members. SAAF was supportive of SAGA's goal to become a nonprofit from the very beginning. "We're not competitors, but collaborators. That's vital to each other's success."

Ragan recalls attending a city council meeting during LGBT Pride month, and rather than addressing the council himself on the mayor's proclamation, he handed the microphone to Tucson attorney and transgender activist Abby Jensen.

"That was important to me, especially when I think about what my own experience is as white cisgender male. To me, the best person to tell our story are people like Abby," he says. "That's what being an ally and growing our community is all about."

Next LGBT steps

SAAF Executive Director Wendell Hicks says he looks back in awe on those first days when Wingspan closed and SAAF brought those programs into its fold. Some of the community was devastated, hurt and grieving. He thinks time has helped, and the fact that the programs are strong and growth is part of the future.

"Having lived in Tucson for only eight years at that point, I didn't quite get how the community was going to need to grieve, be angry, all those stages of emotion—when a jewel like that closes down when it had been around so long," Hicks says.

His approach in community development is to always be open-minded. "You know great things can happen when you are open." A feasibility study confirmed that youth programming and senior programs needed to remain and grow. It also confirmed that the community didn't feel the need for a traditional community center to exist as it once did.

"Which is why we are in the early stages of working on a virtual community center with a website, calendar, and resources in our community for LGBT people," he says.

While there will be an exciting announcement coming soon regarding ION Youth, Hicks says the virtual community is an exciting development.

Ragan says the Virtual Resource Center is funded through a grant provided by the LGBT&A Alliance Fund, part of the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona. The website is currently being designed.

"Meanwhile I am putting a call out to any and all LGBTQ-serving businesses, groups, agencies and friends of the community to get in touch with me at SAAF so I can get them in the first round of listings," he says.

Also in returning is what was once called the Tucson Queer Strategic Partnership, which brought together LGBTQ leaders, groups and agencies to coordinate calendars and form coalition.

Ragan now calls the group the LGBTQ Roundtable.

"We need to continue talking with each other and reaching out. This isn't the time to rest on marriage equality or the fact that programs are succeeding at SAAF," Ragan says.

"This is the time to make sure we are stronger than ever. We need each other and our allies. I can't help think about what happened in Orlando could happen here. This is an amazing community, but we need to listen to each other and reach out."

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the name of Adam Ragan, associate director of LGBTQ Initiates at the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation.

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