Check out our Halsey Street story map for more articles and previews in this series, and stay tuned to Facebook, Twitter, and our homepage for updates on new stories. Above: The interior of the Newark LGBTQ Center. Photo: Dorothy Chau
Every Wednesday night at the Newark LGBTQ Support Center at 11 Halsey Street, a group of roughly ten people representing different ages, backgrounds, and life experiences gather together to crochet scarves and ponchos for dialysis patients. As colorful skeins of yarn are transformed into clothing that will give warmth to others, the conversation weaves back and forth, stitching a small, caring group of support for those present.
There’s a young college student at Rutgers-Newark who identifies herself as a lesbian, and has yet to come out to her family and friends. Another woman, who works at the Prudential Center, recently discovered the wonders of online dating — she met another woman online — and after having scheduled her first date with a woman, she wants some advice. A mother of three in her late forties tells a story of coming out as a lesbian, resulting in a divorce from her husband. One of the newest members of the group recently escaped Sierra Leone due to homosexuality being against the law.
The conversation is open and honest. In a predominately heterosexual world where identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender can leave some feeling isolated and lonely, a support group like this is also a lifeline, says Reverend Janyce Jackson Jones, director of the center.
“Many of these people are not yet open about their sexuality, or cannot be open about their sexuality, so I want to give them a space where they can feel safe and truly be who they are,” she said on a recent Wednesday night crocheting session, as she quietly observed the conversation and knitted a multi-hued scarf.
Newbies to the crochet circle can pay $30 for crochet lessons and materials, or bring their own materials and join in if they already know how. Proceeds are used towards maintenance of the Newark LGBTQ center. Photo: Dorothy Chau
In fact, the support center’s mission is “to create and sustain a better quality of life for the LGBTQ Community of Greater Newark, by providing community-driven programs and services,” according to the organization’s website.
The creation of the center was sparked by the stabbing of 15-year old Sakia Gunn in 2003. While waiting for a bus at 10 p.m. with two friends on Market Street, two men approached Gunn for sex. When she told them she was a lesbian, they began beating her. She was ultimately stabbed multiple times with a knife, while her friends got away.
After the murder, Reverend Janyce Jackson Jones, who was one of the founding members of an AIDS/HIV awareness center known as the Liberation In Truth Social Justice Center (LITSJC), began pushing for the creation of the LGBTQ Center. After ten years, she had finally gathered enough donations and support, and the center opened its doors to the general public in October 2013.
Not only is Jones responsible for managing the Newark LGBTQ Support Center, but she also is a reverend of the nondenominational Unity Fellowship Church. Masses are held every Sunday at 21 Rector Street.
It’s been over a year since the transformation of the support center started, and the renovations continue. Floors have been replaced and the walls have been painted a friendly purple. All of the workers at the center are volunteers who dedicate their own time to improve the center and the lives of those around them.
Previously, LITSJC provided services for the people of Newark that included free testing and education regarding HIV/AIDS. The revolutionized Newark LGBTQ Support Center provides a much broader suite of services that address a wider spectrum of individual needs and interests and also help to unify the community, from hobbies, fitness, and social events to health and emotional support. Aside from the weekly crochet and knitting group, the center also hosts creative writing workshops, yoga on Thursdays, movie nights, drumming circles, and life lesson workshops for adolescents. On Thursdays, the center feeds meals to the homeless, an event known as God’s Love We Deliver.
As the LGBTQ Support Center grows, more support and funding will be required to maintain the center. According to Jackson, “the yearly budget for the center is $154,000. This is a very lean budget that only includes salary for two part-time staff, and the overhead costs include rent, maintenance, utilities and running projects.”
Future projects include setting up tables on nearby college campuses to spread the word about the center and to promote LGBTQ awareness, and collaborating with other organizations that advocate for safe sex and HIV/AIDS awareness.
Ultimately, Reverend Jackson wants to put the community and its members first. “I want to make the center a hub with many different services, but what’s most important is that we make a safe space that allows people to feel comfortable and be open with themselves,” she says.
Find the Newark LGBTQ Center on Facebook and Twitter.