BATTLE CREEK – Larry Dillon said growing up here as a gay man meant suppressing feelings and hiding who he really was. It wasn’t until after he retired in 2000 from his teaching job with the Lakeview School District that he came out as a gay man.
Dillon doesn’t want individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to have to experience what he did and he was among a few who said the community needed an organization dedicated to LGBT residents. On November 14 an open house was held to officially open the Battle Creek Pride Resource Center.
The Resource Center is the result of an organization which formed four years ago to serve the LGBT community in Battle Creek and Calhoun County. The new center is located in what used to be the teen room at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Financial and in-kind contributions totaling more than $5,000 were used to repair and renovate the new space and furniture and paintings were donated by a friend of the resource center.
“We’re similar to a lot of other communities as far as our LGBT residents go,” Dillon said. “We’re concerned with our young people and the potential for them to be bullied in the schools. We’re concerned about job discrimination and the ability to get a job. There’s still discrimination in housing and the LGBT community is still discriminated against in hotels and restaurants.”
Dillon said he and others launched a successful campaign to get an anti-discrimination ordinance passed in the city. He said people for the most part are supportive of the LGBT community and there have been very few cases of discrimination.
Battle Creek’s resource center is the eighth in Michigan, according to CenterLink, a Fort Lauderdale-based organization which was founded in 1994 as a member-based coalition to support the development of strong, sustainable LGBT community centers. The center is open from 1-8 p.m. four or five days a week. Dillon said the hours of operation will increase as more people are available to supervise.
LGBT community centers play an important role in the life of LGBT Americans, according to the 2012 Community Centers Report authored by Centerlink.
“In some parts of the country, a local community center may be the only LGBT resource where residents can access social, educational and health services,” the report said. “ The 79 LGBT community centers participating in this report collectively serve more than 33,300 people each week and the 55 centers that reported 2011 revenue data have combined revenue of $106.8 million. Across the country, these community centers are vital players in the LGBT movement and provide an invaluable link between individual LGBT people and state and national efforts to advance LGBT equality.”
While the local resource center will advocate for the rights of the LGBT community at the national level, Dillon said the main focus will be on providing a safe and welcoming space.
“The organization is also here to provide social outlets for the LGBT community. A lot of gay people didn’t feel comfortable going to just any entertainment spot,” Dillon said. “We have social events just like other people would have and we organize outings .”
In addition the organization’s members have secured scholarships for young and old LGBT individuals and sponsor an annual Peace Prom where people can bring their same sex partners. He said the group is also planning various support groups.
“We have an Alcoholic Anonymous support group because LGBT individuals aren’t always welcomed in the regular Twelve Step program and we also have a transgender support group,” Dillon said. “There’s also going to be a drop-in center for students to come after school to do their homework.”
None of these support services existed when Dillon was growing up.
“I was born here and educated here and I graduated from (Western Michigan University) and became a teacher in Lakeview,” Dillon said. “I couldn’t be openly gay and be a teacher.”
He was married for 30 years and when his wife passed away he came out as a gay man.
“It was something I probably knew,” Dillon said of being gay, “but I pushed it to the back because I was happily married. Before my marriage it was difficult. I didn’t really want to be gay when I was young because I knew I would have to squelch my goals.”
He said he doesn’t have a good sense of the size of Battle Creek’s LGBT community.
“It’s hard to tell because a lot of gays are still in hiding and they don’t want to be publicly known, They’re afraid they’ll be put down or lose their jobs. I know many, many people who are still in the closet,” Dillon said. “It’s amazing how you find out some people are gay.”
Ultimately LGBT individuals want to enjoy the same kind of life that straight people do. This includes access to housing and good jobs; a legally binding marriage; and the ability to adopt children.
“We want that house with a picket fence,” Dillon said.