December 16, 2008

Racine Pride: City Council approves gay community center

Sister Truly Fierce of the Abbey of the Brew City Sisters, an offshoot of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, speaks in favor of an LGBT Center in Racine on Tuesday night at the City Council meeting. Alderman Jim Kaplan, who tried to delay the proposal, sits in the background. Sister Fierce said after the meeting her job was to "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable."

Bruce Joffe sat in the audience of Tuesday night's City Hall meeting with a transexual nun watching his back and hostile opponents outside the door.

The Carthage College professor was there to gain the city's blessing to open a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual Community Center on Junction Street in Racine's Uptown. Surrounded by supporters and opponents, the night unfolded into a surreal combination of theatrics, Bible-thumping indignation, open-hearted appeals, questionable political manuevering and, for Joffe, a happy ending.

But it was still a brutal night for the audience. First, three inches of snow made it tough just to get to City Hall. Then, the council decided to jabber for two hours on allowing a Douglas Avenue gas station to sell alcohol (they voted no) and then on extending a checkout program for buying kegs (they voted to extend the program six months). A bad sign came early in the night when the council debated for five minutes on whether to extend the public comment period 15 minutes. They defeated the proposal for a longer session, which didn't matter because all of the comments were read on time.

Joffe spoke during the public comment period on his proposal for the LGBT Center. The idea came to him shortly after moving with his partner from Virginia to Racine. They were interested in meeting other gay couples and posted an ad on Craig's List.

"We weren't interested in sex," Joffe said in an interview outside of the meeting. "We specifically said, 'This is not a sex ad.'"

Thirty-eight people responded to their friend request, and the idea for a community center was born. Joffe found the building in Racine's proposed Uptown Artist Relocation District and just needed City Council approval to move forward.

An opponent to the LGBT Center "loves the person, but hates the sin."

The proposal met resistance. The JT blogs lit up against the center and a local radio host tried to rally city clergy against the proposal. On Tuesday night, a handful of people spoke against the proposal on religious grounds that crossed into flat out intolerance.

"Now I know I'm Alice in wonderland," said one woman who spoke after supporters of the center. "Is this a good thing for our community? In San Francisco it's been a nightmare."

She went on to compare the proposed center to mass-murderer Jeffrey Dahmer and America-bashing, and said the center made her "sick."

"We need to show love for these people through Christ, through Jesus," she said.

Another woman threatened the council with God's wrath. "The way you vote you'll have to answer to the Lord," she said.

Joffe's comments tried to focus the issue on the government business at hand, namely approving the conditional-use permit for the center. The building was already zoned for use as a community center, and the permit basically required the owners to follow ordinances, put up a nice sign and clean the building's facade. Joffe noted after the meeting that gay people would, of course, clean up the building. "Our population expects better than that," he said.

But in his words to the council, Joffe noted that four high school girls had called him after learning about the center to tell him they needed a safe place to go. He also had the support of two local churches, the library and UW-Parkside, which may make grant money available to the center.

"This is not mythology," he said. "This is not Alice in Wonderland."

Bruce Joffe is in the lower right corner.

As the council droned on about other issues, Joffe stepped into the hall for a brief interview. A woman overheard the conversation and yelled at him for five minutes about "lifestyle choices" and how race was a different issue than sexuality. The verbal attacks only ended after Joffe returned to the council chambers.

The council took up the item as one of the last on its agenda. Alderman Jim Kaplan lead a subtle, if obvious, attack on the proposal. The strategy: delay.

Kaplan argued that the LGBT Center didn't fit with the city's plans to relocate artists into Uptown. Apparently, gay people and the arts are a bad match.

When that argument didn't work, Kaplan and few others went to the old fallback of parking. (Note to readers: If you're ever trying to kill a building project, bring up the parking issue. When it suits their interests, elected officials love to worry about where people put their cars.)

Kaplan's strategy almost worked. The council voted 8-5 against referring the item back to committee - a time-killing death trap that would have turned a simple issue into a community free-for-all. Credit to Alderman Greg Helding on this point. When discussion started to stray into issues of morality, he brought the debate back to the simple decision of a permit. Mayor Gary Becker, who runs the meeting, also did little to hide his distaste for the discussion. While professional, he also abruptly pushed the issue through.

The council voted 9-4 in favor of granting the conditional-use permit. Kaplan, along with Aldermen Q.A. Shakoor, Ron Hart and Michael Shields, voted against the proposal. Shakoor said during the debate that the issue needed more public discussion. Hart and Shields didn't add much more than their vote to the discussion.

Work begins on the 1,750-square-foot center in January or February, said Joffe, who already has contractors lined up for the project. Rattled by his encounters at the meeting, he said he's now worried someone will burn down the building.

"I'll be overinsuring the building," Joffe said. "I just hope nobody gets hurt."


  1. Preemptive Comment: City aldermen assured everyone at the meeting Tuesday night that no city money is supporting the center.

    Also, there is plenty of parking in city and private lots (open to the LGBT Center) near the building.

  2. "Then, the council decided to jabber for two hours on allowing a Douglas Avenue gas station to sell alcohol (they voted no) and then on extending a checkout program for buying kegs (they voted to extend the program six months). "

    Dustin - in fairness, the first hour and fifteen minutes of the meeting was a public hearing and public comments. Also, our agendas are always in the same order - Public Hearings, Public Comments, Committee Reports, etc. The item was part of the Plan Commission report.

  3. I'd be interested in what is meant by Becker having distaste for the discussion. I wonder if he thought there were unnecessary tangents into moral issues, or if he opposes the center, or discussion of LGBT issues at large.

    I'll be very upset if he doesn't support this.

  4. Greg- All true, but it felt like an eternity in the audience. You're just doing city business, of course, but it's not real entertaining.

    Shaun- My sense is the mayor was definitely in favor of the center. Any impatience he showed was for the opposition, which ran far afield of the issue of granting a conditional use permit.

  5. The mayor's distaste regarding the discussion was for the hate-speak being done by some in attendance. I wish he'd seen the encounter outside of the chambers.
    In response to the parking issue, the mayor wonderfully quipped that if we ever have a parking shortage problem in Uptown, that it would practically be a blessing.

  6. concrete Katie12/17/2008 8:36 AM

    Cities (and Racine is still a city with a diverse population) need to be inclusive and the idea for this center fits Racine because it responds to its own residents' needs. Good for Mayor Becker and the alderman who held firm.

  7. Thank you Bruce for being brave enough to bring a center to Racine.

  8. Sister Truly Fierce looks stunning. I wish I could have been there.

    I know so many gay people who have been persecuted and marginalized their entire lives, yet they always respond with grace, dignity, and civility to others. The LGBT Center will open in a distressed part of town that no one wants to invest in. If it takes root, it could lead to the regentrification of the entire neighborhood. That process has taken place in cities large and small across the nation.

    I lived in New Town, a predominantly gay neighborhood, in Chicago. An aging, decayed area was transformed into a vital and vibrant home for thousands. As soon as gays start displacing the dreck, the supporting businesses move in. This is how urban areas are revitalized - by the pioneers who put their very selves on the line. Usually, they have little other choice because we deny them the right to exist anywhere else. And, quite frankly, no one else has the guts. Of course, once the neighborhood is a success, there will be no shortage of politicians and businessmen willing to take credit for it.

    As for parking, geez-louise, how about the parking issue around City Hall? What was it like getting a space last night?

  9. Oops, I forgot: thank you, Bruce Joffe.

  10. "A bad sign came early in the night when the council debated for five minutes on whether to extend the public comment period 15 minutes. They defeated the proposal for a longer session"

    God forbid that the public has input.
    We need to learn how to be better sheeple and do as we are told
    I like the idea to have more centers so all in the City of Racine can have places to hang out.
    BTW when will Racine get a Spanish Center?

  11. For those who support the LGBT Center, I say "thanks." Justice prevailed. The issue at this hearing was not supposed to be a philosophical one between the Christian crusaders who believe the LGBT Center is the last nail in Racine's Sodom and Gomorrah casket. Rather, the Council's deliberations rested on a simple issue: zoning. Were we within our rights -- and was the City within its -- to grant a conditional use permit to this building?

    Alas, there was a bit of a circus-like sense to the proceedings, with the holy rollers spouting words they didn't even understand ("our preacher told us to come out and object to this unholy, satanic, and morally destructive organization ... which we don't need or want in Racine," summarizes their vitriole. On the other hand, the dramatic "drag queens" captured attention -- and press coverage -- in their outlandish attire ... yet spoke eloquently about fundamental human and civil rights, including the right to the pursue life, liberty, and happiness, along with the right to assemble peacefully.

    How many more miserable and suicidal young people need to die before the "good folks" of Racine realize that homosexuality isn't a "lifestyle" or a "choice," but a life that simply is marginalized from the mainstream? How many parents who say they love their offspring, will reject their children by kicking them out of of their homes and their lives because homosexuality is an "abomination" to them? How many times will heterosexual couples walk down the street holding hands, putting their arms around each, or exchanging a kiss on the cheek ... while same-sex couples, equally in love, are denied the same public comfort level--yet are also denied the right to gather in centers like ours, where they can find support and understanding, compassion and camaraderie?
    What many of today's Christian fundamentals forget as they agitate for their own narrow positions is that Christ's greatest commandment is to "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart ... and to love your neighbor as yourselves." Showing hospitality, pure and simple, to the downtrodden, alienated and the despised among us was the Lord's greatest admonition of all.

    Will I buy more insurance? Youbetcha. I am terrified not just for the potential of vandalism and destruction to the property ... but for the very real threat that innocent people, coming to the center as a welcoming place of understanding, education and support, may be the victims of random acts of violence perpetuated by those who believe it's more important for everyone to believe as they do than to obey and follow the Golden Rule.

    It has happened before, many times. Please don't let such bigotry, hatred, prejudice and misconstrued religiosity govern this Belle City.


    Bruce H. Joffe, Ph.D.
    Executive Director
    LGBT Center of SE Wisconsin

  12. Oops ... I almost forget. Anyone interested in more info about the LGBT Center's purpose, plans, programs, activities, services, membership, etc., can check out its web site online:

  13. Greg Helding did a terrific job stating the facts without letting the proceeding fall into a philosophical black hole. They were there to approve a conditional use permit-not the intent of the use.

    On the other hand, Mike Shields mad a grand statement about discrimination (because that's the only big word he knows)and then voted to send it back to committee and ultimately voted against it.

    Isn't this his district? Isn't he up for re-election?

  14. I overheard Alderman Shields approach Dr. Joffe last night after the meeting and try to explain that he voted against it, because he was "playing the game" or some such nonsense. This, after saying during the council meeting that he hadn't received any calls about the center ... and that he'd received one negative call about the center and one positive call about the center. He said during the meeting that he wasn't opposed to a community center for the LGBT population or any particular population, but then he voted against it.

  15. I would love to see the gay community take over the historic homes between the downtown and the uptown. If there would be a way to remove the troublesome population and replace them with the gay and lesbian community it would eliminate a problem. Their attention to detail and decorating tastes would be better than what is there now. Eliminating the problem and improving the neighborhood would be a win-win-win for the city, the neighborhood and the neighboring business districts. I'm not gay but I have friends who are who always make their places better than how they found them.

  16. Bravo!! Organizers should visit the Arcus Foundation website to see if you can apply for funds under their Gay & Lesbian Fund. Those using God as an excuse to spew hate, intolerance and homophobia don't understand the message of Jesus and give all Christians a bad name. Don't they know Jesus was a community organizer?? Rock on --

  17. Alderman Shields was the very definition of contradiction last night. I thought he of all people would be first in line to take up the fight of a minority group, with all of his talk of discrimination. I was wrong and sorely disappointed in the contradiction between his grand speech and his final vote. The little respect I once had left for him vanished after last night's meeting. He should be ashamed of himself.

    Many thanks to Greg Helding for trying to keep the conversation on track.

  18. No wonderDustin doesn't work for the JT anymore-the council did not talk for two hours about a gas station on Douglas Ave-it was Rapids Drive-Hello! And they didn't discuss it for 2 hours-more like 15 minutes. And they sat through an hour public hearing and 35 minutes of public comment-mostly on the conditional use permit. If you did Dustin's math, they must have been there until at least midnight. Not a real accurate story but for Racine's version of the National Examiner-not bad. Exaggeration sells papers or in this case results in more hits. And for the city council's business being referred to as "not very entertaining" this may explain why Dustin stopped covering local news when he was editor of the JT-his colleagues claimed that Dustin didn't think the JT readers were intersted in local news. Any way hats off to Greg Helding for championing gay rights in Racine-this center should improve the neighborhood and perhps attract some artists. Glad you're on board Colt-you have been pretty negative towards the uptown.

  19. Anon 8:34 - You're right on the gas station, it's on Rapids not Douglas. My mistake.

    For the time line, from the start of the public hearing to the end of the meeting was about two hours. Of course they didn't talk about the gas station the entire time, but the larger point was that it was a long meeting for the crowd to sit through waiting for the vote on the LGBT Center.

    As for the hearsay from my former JT colleagues, it's plain false. I spent years increasing the amount of local news in the paper and trying to cover more local issues. The day I left the paper I created RacinePost and have worked on it daily ever since. It's a tough claim to say I'm not interested in local news and what goes on in this community.

  20. I didn't read all the stuff, but the liquor store is on RAPIDS DR, NOT DOUGLAS.

  21. "Now I know I'm Alice in wonderland," said one woman who spoke after supporters of the center. "Is this a good thing for our community? In San Francisco it's been a nightmare."

    Really> Oh Really> I am a straight individual who has been in San Fran, Castro Street, all the wonderful shops and didn't find San Francisco to have been a nightmare unless you try and park your car. How ridiculous is this!

    Mike Sheilds has needed to be kicked off of so many "committees" and as alderman. He hasn't done crap. Kaplan is lazy and I highly doubt that he got any phone calls.

    Revitilization of Uptown! Bring it on. That area has a chance of actually suceeding because of the LGBT center. And, quite frankly, you would be surprised at the number of gay people in professional jobs RIGHT HERE IN RACINE! OMG, that would floor the religious freaks. We are all human beings. We all deserve respect and consideration.

    Someone asked about a Spanish Center. There was a Spanish Center for years, I am not sure what happened to it but I do believe it received funds from United Way, etc. I believe there was some funds that went astray, I could be wrong.

    As for Dustin. Simply put, if it wasn't for Dustin and the Racine Post, Pete and the sponsor or two, we wouldn't have a viable alternative to the JT. So, Dustin, Pete, thanks soo soo much. You guys need to put out a Racine Post calendar with some of Pete's fantastic work!

  22. I appreciate the Post but I think you are being generous.

    The next thing you know they are going to attract more gays to the neighborhood, then they're going to buy up old dilapitated properties, rehab them and gentrify the area thus driving up property values which in turn will push out the criminals. Gol darm homos!

  23. I've lived in Boston, San Francisco, Honolulu, and San Diego. We have Milwaukee and Chicago in our backyards and they all have large gay communities, and they all have a LGBT centers. After 30 years I returned to my hometown of Kenosha only to realize the desperate socialization needs of not just the gay community, but also the heterosexual community who's view of acceptance and tolerance has not arrived into the 21st century. The LGBT centers save lives! Everyone's life is precious and should not be, for any reason, based on sexual orientation just because the minority feels and believes indignation. Pride v/s Shame...I'll take Pride and day!

  24. Oh dear, what shall we do! The homos will buy up those old houses in Uptown, revitilize the community and make the uptown area a comfortable place for all. How can Racine handle that nasty news! You have Preacherboy's blog sending off fear factor outcries, the Mike Shields who grapples with another reason why he would vote no.

    In the end, I envision a revitalized Uptown with houses refurbished and a vibrate, peaceful community open for all. God accepts all and anyone who waves a blasted bible and says otherwise is a hypocrite.

  25. People from all walks of life and parts of the world wish they lived in a place that allowed individuals the right to express themselves, call whomever they chose god and the rights to free speech. Let this new center be a blessing to the people that will benefit from it. Racine has enough negative energy, crime, hate, racism, and oppression so let’s not oppress this center and its supporters for we only live once and we live in America, land of the free, home of the brave, and even home to the gays!

  26. I was really impressed with the good sister. She was so eloquent in her words and the message was right on target. As a gay man who grew up in this community I think its way overdue for a center like this. Thank you Bruce for taking this on and seeing the need for this.
    I really don't think you have to worry about the vandalism (I hope).
    There was a gay bar smack dab in the middle of the hood for 30 years and I don't think there was any vandalism that would be considered hate crime. Does anybody know about vandalism at Jodee's?
    I also think that Michael Sheilds should be removed as chair of the Racine Democratic Committee. Its disgusting that he voted against it. Its really telling that both black aldermen voted against it.
    The oppressed are now the oppressors!

    Happy Holidays, Happy Light of Peace

  27. I wasn't at the meeting. I'm curious to know why any subject matter was allowed that was not directly related to the zoning issue. It seems to me that it was either people should have spoken about zoning or not spoken at all. Can't they tell people they are out of order at these things?
    Mike Shields is not only an alderman but also the head of the NAACP and the chairman of the Racine democratic party. He should have voted yes without hesitation. He voted no because he is needs support from a church that is opposed to gay rights. He voted no for his own personal political agenda.
    And, he needs to be removed from the Democratic party for going against the party stance on gay rights at the very least. Then the NAACP needs to review his position with them for this vote. I'm just so disgusted with politicians like him I could scream.

  28. As County Party Chair, is Alderman Shields familiar with the policy platform of the DNC? The new President has been an outspoken supporter of Gay rights as a matter of civil liberty.

    Exactly who does Alderman Shields think he is representing in his district?

    Oh wait, I guess I just answered my own question. The County Dems should censure him or something!

  29. Sister Truly Fierce of the Abbey of the Brew City Sisters is probably the smartest of all. She knows that the garb would spark intense scrutiny, thus when she spoke, everyone would listen. A job well done. Thank you!

    As for Shields, he doesn't do anything, just collects money from doing nada. He has his hand out for himself. Remove him? It won't happen, he is a puppet for others.

  30. Sup. Diane M. Lange12/30/2008 1:40 PM

    I send my appreciation and support to Bruce Joffe and his supporters who are working to open the LGBT center and will look forward to attending the opening ceremony as an elected public official.

    The project will help to meet health, social and economic development needs in our community. Several years ago the Racine County Economic Development Corporation brought in Richard Florida to speak at their annual meeting. This author of THE RISE OF THE CREATIVE CLASS and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh linked creativity to cities thriving or withering. Diversity, equity, and fairness in a community help to nurture and attract creative individuals. Sister Truly Fierce seemed to be demonstrating the joy of such creative answers to the daily question "Hmmm...Just what should I wear today?", plus used the time to make excellent points.

    The movie "Milk" has not made the Racine area theaters yet, but I highly recommend citizens checking it out. Health, Good Will and Happiness in the New Year to all.

    Supervisor Diane M. Lange

  31. "Non judgment day is near"

    "Separation of church and hate"

    "Religion is for people afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have been there"

    "When religion ruled the world they called it the dark ages"

    "God wants spiritual fruits. Not religious nuts"

    "God protect me from your followers"

    "Not all who wander are lost"

    "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ." Gandhi

    "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough religion to make us love one another." Jonathon Swift

    "Tolerance - believe in it"

    Am going to Milwaukee tomorrow to see MILK.