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The San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center— known simply as The Center — is the 2nd oldest LGBTQ community center in the country. It’s a large gathering place, a safe haven for some of the most marginalized among us.

The Center serves a vast community — men, women, youth, seniors, families, LGBTQ Latinx community members and their families, trans people, immigrants, people living with HIV — with a ton of services and groups. Some of us may be looking for a particular community, and we don’t know if it exists in San Diego. But it most likely does — at The Center.

The Center has been here in San Diego for 45 years. It began as an answering machine: People who needed LGBTQ or military counseling could call and leave a message, and would get a call back with guidance and advice. After the need was identified, The Center opened in a physical space for LGBTQ education, health, and social services.

With 60 staff, 12 board members, and 1200 volunteers, The Center is more than equipped to provide this vital community support.

“The Center wants to help everyone we can help today, and make sure our doors are open even wider for everyone in the long run,” said Cara.

Caroline (Cara) Dessert is the CEO of The Center. Earlier in her career, she worked in Community and Government Relations at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, and understands that our two organizations have an important partnership.

“We share a deep commitment to accessible and affordable health care, especially in the areas of sexual health and reproductive health. We have a shared history of fighting for access to health care and sexual/reproductive health education — it’s been at the center of both of our work,” she said.

Two of the services that The Center shares with Planned Parenthood are PrEP and PEP, and HIV testing.

There is a great demand for PrEP and PEP — both in terms of letting people know what it is and how it can protect them, and access.

“Lower-income people and men of color don’t always have the same access as others,” she said. “The question is, how do we make PrEP and PEP accessible in order to keep the community safe, healthy, and thriving?”

The Center has also been very active is reducing HIV stigma.

“We wanted to have a public education campaign to reduce stigma (#BeTheGeneration). If an HIV test is negative, we can talk about PrEP and help the person make informed choices on how to remain HIV negative. If it’s positive, we try to get a patient into care with UCSD within 24 hours.”

The Center gives approximately 100 HIV tests per month. They are concerned that the numbers are going down for certain groups, but not others.

“We know that among men who have sex with men: Latinos, Black men, and seniors are still contracting HIV at higher rates than others,” Cara said. “So we have to do better. One of the issues we are always exploring is how can we do more intentional outreach and form partnerships to make those numbers go down?”

In addition to health care services, The Center has created robust community groups — as with their Latinx groups.

“We started the 1st Latino Services Program at an LGBTQ Center in the country. When you walk into our Nicole Murray Ramirez [email protected] Services Center, Spanish is often the first language you hear. There’s art, history, culture, religion, and an altar that reflects the diversity of Latino culture. It’s a place where LGBTQ Latinos and all our family members are welcome. People are very comfortable here,” Cara said.

Their Latinx/transgender group, Transgenero 2000, has been going strong for 18 years! Transgenero 2000 provides an opportunity to discuss and educate others about the life experiences of members of the transgender community; the group is also open to transgender people’s families, friends, and allies.

The Center has a growing gender-identity middle school group (10-13 year olds) that meets on Tuesday nights at the Hillcrest Youth Center. Half the group identifies as trans or non-binary.

“We have some amazing parents who are fierce advocates for their kids. They may not know a lot about the trans or non-binary community, and they’re looking for resources so they can be the best parents they can be,” Cara said. “Family acceptance is the number-one protective factor against a variety of health disparities for LGBTQ youth.”

During their LGBTQ youth groups at Hillcrest Youth Center, young people can drop in and talk in a safe space. It’s a place to be with friends from all over San Diego County, to meet each other and share experiences. (For more information about The Center’s youth LGBTQ groups, email: [email protected].)

For all its resources and its fierce commitment to the LGBTQ community, we’re proud to be a partner with The Center in keeping people safe and healthy.

“The Center offers something for everyone: a sense of community, services, advocacy, and support — in an environment that is accessible, where everyone can be their authentic selves, and where everyone is welcome and treated with respect and dignity,” said Vernita Gutierrez, director of community engagement at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest. “And like Planned Parenthood, The Center understands that the right to bodily autonomy is key to creating a world where every person can choose their own path to a healthy and meaningful life.

“We believe people have the right to control their bodies, to know how to remain healthy, to choose parenthood or not, and to have a chance to receive accurate sexuality education — so our issues overlap frequently with Planned Parenthood,” Cara said.

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