It is not just services, colorful flags and signs that make a visible community, but also an atmosphere that makes people feel celebrated and welcomed. The things that make the Gayborhood a visible community are the cultural organizations, anchor buildings and businesses like the William Way LGBT Community Center, which provides resources and a safe atmosphere for the people in the city of Philadelphia.
The William Way, originally called the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia, is located at 1315 Spruce Street and was founded as a non-profit organization in 1974. The center was the vision of local leaders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities who felt that the members of the communities needed a place where they could explore their culture and support their youth and elders while simultaneously creating a vision for their future. The leaders were confident that the city would be better with a strong LGBT community and the William Way was an important way to make that happen.
The William Way had a shaky start. The center moved from place to place, sometimes even holding board meetings in the living room of Bill Way, the center’s namesake. The center eventually relocated to 222 South Camac Street in 1981 and for a short time was known as the “center without walls” before finding its current home on Spruce Street.
Despite all of its relocating, the William Way and its supporters managed to build a momentum that grew into a powerful voice of compassion within the communities. One substantial element of this evolution is the Executive Director of the Center, Chris Bartlett.
Bartlett was raised just outside of Philadelphia, in Cheltenham. As a young man, he was curious as to how he would find a way to connect to what made him different. He wanted to be within reach of a community where he could explore his uniqueness.
As the executive director of the William Way, Bartlett acts as an air traffic controller, overseeing all of the different areas of the organization and making sure everything operates as smoothly as possible. One of the largest responsibilities Bartlett has is fundraising for the center and making sure the center has the resources it needs. These much needed resources ensure that the doors remain open and programs are provided that fulfill the center’s mission. He is also responsible for managing the staff that coordinates the programing, facilities and fundraising.
“He has a firm respect and hold onto the history of the LGBT communities while possessing a strong understanding of what’s needed to guide the communities into the future,” said Mark Clemmons, a long-time volunteer of the center.
The William Way provides services ranging from having one of the most extensive LGBTQ archives and periodic art exhibits, to offering counseling and substance abuse support. However, what raised the William Way to another echelon is Bartlett’s vision. Bartlett’s vision of an intergenerational model brings together youth, adults and elders for support as well as activities. Bartlett believes that interaction between these groups allows each generation to learn from one another, which is an integral component to building a visible and healthy community. For example, youth may teach seniors how to use the computer, while seniors may teach youth how to read. The idea is that such cross community engagement will promote the most profound lessons of the community.
“Sometimes we learn the most from those who are different from us,” Bartlett said.
Thus, one of the goals of the William Way is to bring people together from different communities and encourage people to be around others who aren’t like them. So if you have never met a trans-woman, spent time with an Asian person from Olney, or you have never been around a senior who didn’t come out until she was in her sixties, you can meet them all at the William Way.
People from all over Philadelphia visit the William Way. On any given day you can meet someone from every background whether racial, generational, or political.
Some visitors attend addiction recovery meetings, some utilize the center as a source of community information and events, while others simply visit the center to take advantage of classes on meditation or use the Internet.
Philadelphia was recently ranked the first by the Human Rights Campaign – tied with Portland and Washington D.C. – as the friendliest LGBT city in the nation. Philadelphia government is making innovative moves surrounding LGBT health, family and work force friendly policy.
“We have a lot of support but not enough,” Bartlett said.
The William Way, along with other community organizations and leaders as well as the city government, worked together to build the John C. Anderson Apartments, fifty-six units of affordable housing for LGBT seniors.
“We must guarantee these seniors, who created this world for us, get what they need,” Bartlett said.
Community cultural organizations like the William Way center help keep their community visible and thriving in Philadelphia.
“It’s hard to put us back in the box,” Bartlett said.
– Text, images and video by Shara Dae Howard, Amber White and Susan Dong.