The building at 412 37th St. South is a nondescript structure that looks like it might house offices for a small business. There’s no name on the red awning on the front, no indication of what takes place inside.
Despite the plain vanilla outside, the inside contains promise for Birmingham-area LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer or questioning) youth. It is the new home of the Magic City Acceptance Center, a program of Birmingham AIDS Outreach. The center offers a variety of events and educational programs for youths, including those of college age.
The center opened its doors in April, but BAO had a grand opening for it earlier this month and is being funded by a $50,000 grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Several LGBTQ youths attended the grand opening, excited about the future of a facility designed to serve them and their peers. Lucy, a transgendered 16-year-old who is biologically male, says she’s very happy. “It means a lot because it’s a physical space where you are safe, and there are people who aren’t judgmental or potentially disrespectful,” she says.
A rising high school junior, Lucy says she came out to her parents when she was 14 but isn’t out at school yet. “I will be [out] next school year,” she says. “We’ll see how that goes.”
She believes the center will help her cope. “I’m not sure it will make life easier…but it will provide a safe place outside of the difficult parts” of life, she says.
Lauren, 22, recently earned a bachelor’s degree in film from the University of Alabama. She wishes the Magic City Acceptance Center had existed sooner. “It’s hard to put into words how excited I am,” she says. “I know directly how wonderful this would have been for me when I was a little bit younger. … I really, really want to be here now.”
Lauren identifies herself as queer but understands that earlier generations used queer as a pejorative. Today’s LGBTQ youth have taken the word and are transforming it into a positive one. “Queer means not conventional. I like it for that reason,” she says.
Ian, 20, is a student at Illinois Wesleyan University majoring in musical theater who is home for the summer and interning at BAO. He has an androgynous gender expression. “I just believe in being Ian,” he says.
Ian says he attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts, which has a culture that accepts LGBTQ students. “I already had a safe space [but] to have my voice heard in a way I wanted to be heard would have been wonderful,” he says. “I think the biggest thing is proving they [LGBTQ youths] exist. … It’s like there’s this veil between us and the rest of society.”
He says adults often do not know how to speak to LGBTQ youths. “How do we redefine something that seems indefinable?” he says. “Just being LGBTQ seems indefinable.”
The center is a big step in his mind. “It says we are here and we should be recognized as a legitimate part of the community,” Ian says.
Lucy, Lauren and Ian all were part of a photo exhibit called Family Matters: LGBTQ Youth Perspectives that was on display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute April 23 to June 9. Their portraits now are on display at the center.
The center itself is a welcoming place, with “You Are Beautiful” painted in large script letters on the walls. Amanda Keller, BAO’s director of LGBTQ services, says office walls, dropped ceilings and carpeting all were removed, exposing beams, ductwork and a concrete floor that has been painted gray and sealed with glitter in the top layer. Two small bathrooms now both are unisex.
BAO is relatively new in involvement with LGBTQ services. Although it has a 29-year history of providing services to people with HIV/AIDS, as well as free HIV testing, it had never focused on LGBTQ issues until 2013, when the board of directors voted to add LGBTQ services.
Keller and Josh Bruce, BAO’s education director, say the need to provide services for LGBTQ youth was made apparent in 2013, when statistics showed that the age group with the highest rate of new infections was 13 to 24. It previously had been 25 to 34.
“That’s alarming. That’s why we are focusing on high-risk youth,” Bruce says. “We need to get that shift back down.”
He says many teens are not educated about HIV and its prevention. The media no longer focuses on AIDS and HIV because advances have gotten the disease under control and fewer people are dying from it. At the same time, youth have the mindset that infection won’t happen to them, he says.
The center offers several programs and support groups that include educational components. “We teach abstinence-based education,” Bruce says. But information also is provided on options for prevention.
The center now is home to several youth support groups that already were under the BAO umbrella, including:
- Birmingham Alliance of Gay, Straight and Lesbian Youth (BAGSLY), a support group for LGBTQ high school and college students and their allies that has been in existence for about 25 years. It meets at 6:30 p.m. the first and third Thursdays of each month.
- Steel City Spectrum, a support and advocacy group for LGBTQ youths between the ages of 13 and 19, youths who identify with the LGBTQ community and allies. It is a youth-driven group facilitated by youth leaders with support from adult allies. Its meetings are at 7 p.m. the first and third Tuesdays of each month.
- Youth Advisory Council, an open forum for youth ages 13 to 19. Members represent a wide range of family and ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs and political ideologies. It focuses on educating youths about preventing HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. YAC members present education programs in area schools and at community events.
- Unicorn Pizza Club is a series of workshops for LGBTQ youths 13 to 19. The workshops equip teens with knowledge on preventing teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and STDs.
- A weekend youth retreat is scheduled June 27 to June 29. It is a free event for youth 13 to 19 and will feature workshops on pregnancy and HIV/AIDS and STD prevention.
But the center also has numerous fun programs as well. “Our main goal is to make this a fun, safe place for youth to come to,” says Carl Peoples, artistic director for the center. Programs include a summer film series with free pizza, popcorn and soft drinks and art workshops.
Peoples says the youth enjoy the art workshops. “Any judgments are about the project they are working on instead of themselves,” he says. “Artistic endeavors are important.”
The center also recently hosted a prom, complete with a DJ, that was attended by 22 youths, many of whom have not been able to enjoy the prom experience previously.
Peoples is excited about the possibilities. “We are looking forward to not having enough seats at movie nights,” he says. “We want it packed every night.”
“I think the potential is endless,” Keller says. “Our hope is to have youth come from all over the state.”
She says the center now has a solid group of about 30 youths involved in its programs but at least 50 additional people have liked the Magic City Acceptance Center Facebook page in recent weeks. “They come from everywhere — Homewood, Indian Springs, Irondale, Hueytown,” Keller says.
“It will grow exponentially from that when those kids start talking about it,” Peoples says.
Keller and Peoples hope to invite similar centers in Huntsville and other southeastern cities to come to the Magic City Acceptance Center for programs and events.
Keller believes the center will provide needed support for LGBTQ youth. “It breaks my heart on a daily basis. I wish that life could be easier for them,” she says. “We hope this center provides a safe place for them to grow and be who they are and not have to worry.”
Karen Musgrove, BAO’s executive director, says the current programs at the center are just a beginning. “The ultimate goal is to have a social worker here full time with counseling and be a true drop-in center,” she says. “We have to do things in small steps, which is good because we have to plan for what we want to become.”
She adds, “We want them to come. … Now we have to get the word out.”
For more information on the Magic City Acceptance Center, visit its Facebook page or call Amanda Keller, (205) 322-4197, ext. 13.