I made my NYC directing debut in 1991 at the New York LGBT Cultural Center on 13th Street – and The Center was a vital part of my life during my New York years, and even after. It was vital to me and so many others because it was a place where amazing things happened, where amazing people met. It's somewhat palatial facility was as busy every day as Grand Central Station.
In contrast, OutCentral, Greater Nashville's LGBT Center, occupies a simple storefront at 1709 Church Street. Nestled among several of our favorite bars – Canvas, Blue Gene's and Vibe – OutCentral is a shotgun style facility with a reception area, one modest sized community room and some office and storage space. It’s not large but there is always art hanging on the walls and the community room truly serves the community. It was, for example, speaking personally, the perfect place for a recent reading of Ed Wood: The Musical.
OutCentral's current president is a very passionate young man named Robbie Maris. At 25, he's got that rare trifecta of enchanting good looks, charm and compassion that result in great charisma, and a personal story that explains why he is perfect for this job.
Maris came out to his conservative Lutheran family when he was a 16, a junior in high school. "Those who knew me," he says, "knew I was gay before I did." His parents enrolled him in Exodus International, one of those conversion therapy movements for conflicted Christian homosexuals. He even went with his mom to the Exodus International Freedom Conference in Marion, Indiana in 2006.
Coming to Nashville to attend Belmont, however, allowed Maris to alter his journey and shift his paradigm. In 2009 he founded LGBT Bridge Builders, the first LGBT student group at Belmont University, and when soccer coach Lisa Howe (today the Executive Director of Nashville's LGBT Chamber of Commerce) was fired for coming out as a lesbian in December of 2010, Maris organized a sit-in protest outside the president’s office. Bridge Builders became a recognized student organization shortly after that.
After college, Maris volunteered at OutCentral, where he was familiarized with Street Works, a Nashville based organization serving those most at risk of HIV infection. Street Works hired Maris as program assistant for Project UNO, an empowerment program for gay and bisexual men between ages 18 and 29. Since Street Works rents office space at OutCentral, Maris, by this time an OutCentral board member, was on site every day, all day long. OutCentral has no paid staff, so Maris became the accidental face of the center, since he was always there.
Maris was elected president of the OutCentral board in December 2013 and took up his term in January 2014. In our meeting, he gave me his card, which bears the OutCentral mission statement, "… to connect, educate, empower, and build a positive, energy-filled space for greater Nashville's diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community."
In addition to regular community meetings, OutCentral holds major events, such as Autumn Honors in October for LGBT history month. OutCentral also supports community efforts, such as September's THRIVE 615, a day to empower the gay/bi/trans community, focused on HIV and health. The event is a joint effort of OutCentral, Street Works, Nashville Cares, The Vanderbilt HIV Vaccine Program, The State of Tennessee and The United Way.
I asked Robbie, who has left Project Uno to become community educator/recruiter for the Vanderbilt HIV Vaccine Program, about the challenges facing him as president of this board. The lack of a support staff is always an issue: the board, which changes every year, charts the course, while volunteers must be depended on for everything. Then of course the never ending requirement for fundraising is a challenge.
One source of funding is, of course, membership fees and my thought is that we should all be members. Even you New Yorkers. Who knows – one day you might want to come down here and do a reading of your new play in Nashville.
Visit OutCentral to find out more about the center, events, or to join!
[Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately described Out Central as hosting, rather than supporting, Thrive^615.]