Queer Strongholds in the South: The Rise of Savannah’s LGBT Community and Health Center

 Photos: Mel Paisley

Photos: Mel Paisley

My first contact with the Savannah LGBT Center was at a benefit show at Club One, dropping in to donate some art for the auction and empty my threadbare denim pockets raising as money as I could towards its doors opening that July.

We danced that night in a packed house, breathing in the ecstatic, fevered taste of one another’s joy and intention and liquor sweat, throwing each crumpled bill at the stage like a tiny, hopeful prayer. A prayer that this was really going to happen, and that the center would be everything they had advertised it would be—a centralized location for queer friendly mental health and AA/NA services, HIV testing, education, and community support.

The Club One Cabaret, The House of Gunt, and the Savannah Sweet Tease joined forces to deliver an electrifying, brilliantly diverse show that night in anticipation of the space opening, bodies twisting and kicking and beating a dance pulse into the dark, glitter crusted stage.

Savannah showed up hard for that show, raised a fair amount of cash, and after twenty years of working and dreaming, The First City Network threw open the doors to the Center’s grand opening on July 13, 2017.

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Billy is the executive director of the Savannah LGBT Center. When I asked him what barriers had existed to the center’s opening in the past, he told me that it had been a dream of The First City Network since 1985, but the climate just hadn’t been favorable enough, largely due to the lack of pro-LGBT legislation in past decades. While Savannah, like Atlanta, is a killer bastion of queer excellence and energy in the Deep South, Chatham County is still surrounded on all sides by the decidedly Red political tide of Georgia as a whole, and that tide does seep into our city limits is some places. However, the support of the Savannah LGBT+ community has steadily grown since the First City Networks’ inception with the help of local grassroots efforts, publicly accepted pride events, and nationally recognized Obama-era pro-equality court rulings. He said that when the idea for the center was pitched again two years ago, the initial donor response was so strong that they were able to forge forward optimistically until the space was finally able to get funded and lease a location, here in the twilight hour of what has turned out to be devastating year for national LGBT+ rights in the areas of hate violence and federal public policy.

As far as the center’s services are concerned, it was the talk of a free mental health clinic that hit me the most.

The last time I had access to affordable, in depth mental health care was in early 2016. Currently, I see a general practitioner once every few months, he writes out my anti-psychotic prescription with a few refills, and that’s it. He doesn’t check my levels, and doesn’t ask me anything in depth about my schizophrenia beyond are you still hearing voices, yes or no, then waving his hand onto the next topic. The last opportunity I had to get some psychotherapy at a low rate was with an expert in mood disorders at a local understaffed, overcrowded clinic trying its best to create a safety net for folks like me with limited or nonexistent coverage who aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized for inpatient anymore, but too sick to function well without some help. After weeks of waiting and coming in for walk ins, I finally got booked, but at the end of our intake session, the therapist pushed out a sigh, set down his clipboard, and told me in frank terms that he probably wasn’t going to be able to give me appropriate care, because of my trans status. He referred me to a social worker who worked part time at the same clinic, telling me that she was younger and more well versed in ‘dealing with things like that’, and moved me to her list. She was sweet and wise, but a family dynamics counselor in practice, and our sessions always ended up with me backtracking to answer her questions about psychosis and symptoms while she gave me vague, non-specific advice about drinking tea and going on walks and trying to learn how to breathe deep and relax and not overthink so much.  

Needless to say, I was stoked when they announced that the Savannah LGBT Center would be holding a free, queer-run mental health clinic on Thursday nights and Tuesday mornings.

The woman who saw me was a bright, sharp minded and strong tongued middle aged lesbian with dark eyes which sparkled with the weight and shimmer of her lived experience. When she stepped into the Health Clinic area in the back of the Center and invited me into her office, we shared that immediate, unspoken acknowledgment of common experience one can only get from meeting other gay people. That vibe that the walls can be let down just a little bit, that there is one less thing you have to hide. The way we always seem to make our homes in the air between ourselves. The whole building felt like that, from the gaggle of other gays perusing the art show in the foyer to the library I passed on the way back to the clinic.

It’s an invaluable feeling, and one that is so refreshing to have with a health professional. There’s always so much anxiety about being honest with our doctors, and it was nice not to have to worry about how much I was allowed to disclose, or if I came off as too queer her face might curdle and her eyes would glaze over and she’d decide not to serve me.

 R O Y G B I V - a recent exhibit held by the Savannah LGBT Center

R O Y G B I V - a recent exhibit held by the Savannah LGBT Center

 R O Y G B I V - a recent exhibit held by the Savannah LGBT Center

R O Y G B I V - a recent exhibit held by the Savannah LGBT Center

Early into our meeting, I learned that while she cannot offer recurring weekly one on one therapy sessions there at the Center, she is always there to check in with about developments in our care, and that she offers sliding scale rates for our community in her own practice. We sat there and talked for almost an hour, and she gave me some really solid advice on how to manage my intrusive thoughts, as well as loaded me down with recommendations for a slew of queer friendly psychiatrists in the area and even a recommendation form to get in to see a doctor in the area who could potentially get me started on HRT. On the way out, I passed a group of people congregating in the discussion space for the first of four workshops on understanding one’s rights, this one focusing on same sex marriage and the related changes in estate and financial planning, life insurance and retirement account beneficiaries, and other valuable information on gifting, social security, and more.

Overall, I see the Center having a strong positive impact on the health, safety, and general well being of our community here in Savannah. Just being there around those people and those books and posted affirmations made me feel safer and more at home in the city I was raised in. I am grateful for tireless work of the First City Network, the clinic staff giving up weeknights to show up for their communities, and the slew of other volunteers, donors, and activists who have made this possible. There have been a few issues where a handful of nonbinary volunteers and visitors have felt that their identities have been erased in discussions with some of the center’s staff. However, some of these volunteers have already stepped up to offer sensitivity training for the staff, so here’s to hoping that with some critique and education, the fledgling Center can continue to grow into a place which equally serves the needs of all the facets of our diverse community.

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Mel Paisley is transmasculine author, illustrator, and general loudmouthed inkslinger based out of Savannah, GA. He writes a lot about pre-Stonewall herstory, schizophrenia, and being mixed and queer in the Deep South. (IG/Twitter: @melpaisleyart, melpaisleyart.com)