Having pride for who you are: County’s first LGBTQ center set to open in San Mateo

Cat Haueter, left, Lisa Putkey and Low Sunga are excited to work at the new San Mateo County PRIDE Center.

A collaborative effort to create a community-oriented hub of information and compassion is opening its doors as the first San Mateo County Pride Center welcomes LGBTQ+ people of all ages.

Located in San Mateo, the new center is considered one of the most innovative in California as five nonprofits and the county’s Health System are taking an interdisciplinary approach to offer a range of services uniquely tailored to the LGBTQ community and its allies.

The facility is part of the county’s PRIDE Initiative, which aims to foster an inclusive environment for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and two-spirit.

Whether it’s a youth-led Queer Prom, lectures by medical professionals about the process of transitioning, counseling sessions or just a welcoming place to relax with friends, the Pride Center is expected to grow alongside the community’s needs, said Dr. Jei Africa, director of the county Health System’s Office of Diversity and Equity.

While there are existing community centers, as well as clinics that cater to those who identify as LGBTQ, having the various organizations come together to offer it all under one roof was part of what enabled the center to receive funding through the California Mental Health Services Act, he said.

“It’s a resource center and has clinical services all in one place, plus the collaborative nature of how these services are put together was considered innovative,” said Africa, who identifies as a transgender man. “We need a space where people can come together and be a community, and we are in a county that values diversity and equity.”

San Mateo County has historically been progressive on these types of social justice issues, having in 2014 formed an LGBTQ Commission, the first of its kind in California that doesn’t fall under the umbrella of other human services.

A fresh coat of purple paint, meeting spaces, cozy couches, informational brochures, rainbow flags and clinic space fill the center that is primarily managed by the nonprofit StarVista. Other partners include the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, and the nonprofits Outlet Adolescent Counseling Services, Peninsula Family Services, Pyramid Alternatives and Daly City Partnership.

The center has a $2.2 million budget over the next three years and is celebrating its grand opening June 1.

But the facility has already been in soft-opening mode attracting dozens to the El Camino Real locale. They’ve hosted the county’s LGBTQ Commission meetings, Trans Talk where doctors speak about transitioning, a clothing swap and more, said Pride Center Program Director Lisa Putkey.

“The idea for this is that people will have a space to go and be and thrive and feel accepted and valued for who they are and how they identify,” Putkey said. “We envision building this and growing alongside with what the community needs. So really trying to seek out and make the services we have accessible to the most marginalized.”

The center will offer three main types of services. One is information resources, which include a computer lab, referrals, a web-based media center accessible anywhere and a library. Social or community offerings include serving as a hub where events can be held, providing gathering spaces, education, training and advocacy work. Clinical services will also be available and include individual as well as family counseling, peer support groups and case management. They conducted community forums and currently have an online survey to continue adapting the PRIDE Center to meet the unique needs of program participants, Putkey said.

One thing that is especially important will be having staff and counselors who have expertise in working with LGBTQ communities, said Africa, a psychologist and one of the county’s key liaisons to the center. Often, medical professionals aren’t always experienced in how to best communicate with LGBTQ individuals. For example, using non-binary terms when it comes to dating questions or if a patient is in the process of transitioning, Africa said. Furthermore, with statistics showing LGBTQ youth have higher rates of suicide and face discrimination, it’s critical to offer resources in a compassionate manner, he said.

StarVista Clinical Director Dr. Clarise Blanchard agreed, noting the center is designed to meet a variety of needs of the LGBTQ community under one roof.

“There’s labeling, prejudice, stigma, and with that comes a whole bunch of emotions, fear and anxiety,” Blanchard said. “This project has arisen as [where] you can count on walking into a safe space.”

Aside from the professional counseling and case management offerings, the Pride Center is also open for social events. The agencies involved were thrilled when a youth group suggested hosting the county’s first Queer Prom this June. It could also be open for movie nights, dances, yoga classes or other social events, Putkey said.

“The idea is to provide a safe space,” Putkey said. “There’s lots of possibilities for joy and coming together.”

The San Mateo County PRIDE Center is located at 1021 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo. A community forum begins 11 a.m. Saturday, May 13. The official grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony is 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. June 1. Call (650) 591-0133 for more information.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

Twitter: @samantha_weigel

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