Center City: Connecting the LGBTQ Community in the Digital Age

Chris Bartlett considers himself an active part of the technical community–or the geek community– as he affectionately calls it. But Bartlett is also an active member of the LGBTQ community, serving as the executive director of the William Way Community Center, a hub for sexual and gender minorities in Philadelphia.

Bartlett has immersed himself in LGBTQ community and grant organizing in the Philadelphia region, developed the Gay History Wiki for gay Philadelphia men who died of AIDS and is now applying his vigor for activism and knack for bringing people together through technology at the the center.

Chris Bartlett, the executive director of the William Way Community Center, is an LGBTQ community organizer and activist.

“I think the true measure of social media and the true measure of [technology] is when people do engage face to face in their communities, taking a stand for the communities, whether that’s through activism or plugging in for a project or assisting somebody who’s in need,” Bartlett said. “I see us using those technologies to make that happen.

Bartlett’s only held his current director position at the center for four months, but he’s been involved with William Way for far longer than that.

“This is a place I’ve always come,” he said. “Because this is a place you can always count on people.”

A Philadelphia landmark

Bartlett’s been visiting the center since he moved to Philadelphia in 1991, when the center was located at 201 S. Camac St. and known as Penguin Place.

Historically, the center has moved around the city, originating as a small, garage-like building in 1976 at 326 Kater St., when it was known as the Gay Community Center in Philadelphia. It later bounced from to 222 S. Camac St. to operating without a physical home to 211 S. Quince St.

This mural has become a recognizable feature of the William Way Community Center, which is located at 13th and Spruce streets.

In 1997, the center was able to purchase its present building–it was one of only a few gay community centers in the country to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1997–a trend that didn’t stop in the ‘90s.

On Nov. 2, the Office of Housing and Community Development announced William Way Senior Residences is one of 16 affordable housing developments in Philadelphia that would be receive funding through low income housing tax credits–$2 million for 60 seniors’ homes to be located in the vicinity of the William Way center, which is located at 13th and Spruce streets.

It was also a grant from that landed the center with more than $28,000 to fund the David Bohnett Cyber Center in the four-story center’s lobby.

The digital age

The cyber center, which officially launched in 2007, consists of desktop computers, laptops, a printer available for use for a small fee, as well as free Wi-Fi. It was made possible by the David Bohnett Foundation, an institution that originated in Los Angeles in 1998 and has since donated more than $2.6 million dollars to help fund cyber centers in gay and lesbian centers across the country.

“I think it just kind of brings us into the modern age,” said Candice Thompson, the director of center services, a title she says is just a “fancy way of saying” she oversees all of the center’s volunteers and programs.

“I mean, there’s really so many nonprofits that offer cyber centers, and I think not to provide that to people would be kind of a glaring error on our part,” she added.

After graduating from Temple with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a job in the department of film and media arts’ 16 millimeter processing lab, Thompson began volunteering at the center’s front desk. It’s been six years since she’s made her work at William Way into a full-time career, and she said she’s proud to “have been giving back to the community” for the duration of her professional life.

Thompson said the center’s laptops have been used to provide LGBT seniors with Adobe Photoshop tutorial classes, and there are plans to expand usage of the computers within center programming.

“We get all kinds of users, people checking their e-mail, working on their résumés, checking their Facebook pages between classes,” Thompson said. “Really, the idea is that we want the center to be a destination for folks. … We really want people to come in and hang out and meet other people and really build that sense of community among LGBT people, and that was one of the main reasons we went for the [cyber center] grant.”

Connecting a community

According to an eMarketer report, “Gay and Lesbian Internet Users: The GLBT Community,” more than 13.5 million LGBTQ people will be Internet frequenters by the end of 2010. That’s an 8 percent increase since 2006, and Bartlett said the growing trend is beneficial in more ways than one.

“It’s enabled a whole new generation of LGBT citizens to participate in what we do and also a lot of people throughout the generations to connect through each other with each other,” he said.

The center's David Bohnett Cyber Center has helped make the William Way Center a destination for LGBTQ people and their allies.

Bartlett, whose Twitter username has nicknamed him after the late gay political activist @harveymilk, is hoping to expand the cyber center, in keeping with the overall ambiance of the building.

“One of my visions, especially for this space,” Barnett said as he pointed around the lobby of the center, “[is not for it to look like] the lobby of the Comcast center with that the level of technical beauty. We have a different kind of space–it’s more classic. So I don’t imagine having huge flat-screen TVs all over these walls … but having our Twitter screen and Facebook page up so people can see what’s going on while they’re here.”

Bartlett said the Internet served as a window to information many people would probably not have discovered otherwise–an aspect he says is key in connecting LGBTQ people and their allies to each other and beyond.

“I just love the fact that so much serendipity can come from social media. What would it look like to have [this center] completely wired, with [people] participating full-on– whether or not they’re LGBT? We are on the Avenue of the Arts,” Bartlett said with a laugh, motioning to the rainbow stained-glass window that adorns the center’s front door. “So it’s not very far off.”

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