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The South Texas Equality Project (STEP) is in the early stages of planning an LGBTQ center in the Rio Grande Valley.

The idea for the center is ambitious. The vision is to have a multi-purpose space that can serve as a meeting ground and a place where the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer community can gather. Instead of focusing on any one specific service, the group hopes to get a physical space to dedicate to the community, and then plug-in services as they are needed.

One person who has taken the initiative in coordinating the project is Trey Ibarra, a member of STEP.

“This vision really stems from conversations I’ve had with organizers and members of the community, so it’s a shared vision,” Ibarra shared.

STEP members envision a space where they can have office rooms, conference rooms, and various areas where different groups and organizations can gather for meetings. They also hope to have a clinic available, where trained professionals can work with the community on issues such as HIV and mental health and address any health-related concerns for the Valley’s LGBTQ population. The group hopes the center will include a large space that could potentially be rented out for LGBTQ proms, weddings, and celebrations.

“There has been a need for community, fellowship, and safety for the people within the queer community,” Madeleine Croll, STEP member, said. “An affirming place that provides a constructive environment for discussion of community needs is essential for us to maintain our growing diverse community and maintaining a positive location for commerce in the region.”

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Another STEP member who also shared their ideas was Chase Alpha, who heads the Trans Men Support Group. He feels a center like this is critical for the trans community in the Valley.

“An LGBTQ center is definitely needed in the Valley,” Alpha said. “As a leader in the transgender community, I receive questions almost daily about where trans people can go, what resources we have, and I know for a fact that having something like a center would ease worries that my community has.”

Jada Josette, who leads the Trans Women Support Group, agrees with Alpha and points to her experience in San Francisco, where she would often visit the SF LGBT Center. STEP members are using the bay area center as one example of what the LGBTQ center in the Valley could look like.

“Support, services in suicide prevention, therapists, job training, volunteering opportunities with the community, activities that can enhance their social skills, but above all I feel mental health is important,” Josette responded when asked what would be most important for trans women in the Valley.

Josette also pointed out the high suicide rate among LGBTQ youth and how challenging it can be for youth to come out to family, especially family members who have anti-LGBTQ sentiments.

“Trans youth not only go through the stress of coming out, they also have to endure their own gender dysphoria at an early age,” Josette said.

Another service that the center can provide is to serve as a shelter for LGBTQ youth who are experiencing homelessness, STEP members have discussed in meetings.

According to the Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America study by True Colors Fund, LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ youth. The report tabbed family conflict as the number one reason why LGBTQ youth experience homelessness. Other reasons also include poverty, aging out of the foster care system, or a combination of issues.

While no such study has been conducted in the Valley, surveys that were issued at Pride in the Park along with discussions at STEP meetings reveal that homelessness is a major issue in the Valley. Croll, Alpha, and others have talked openly about how important a shelter is needed for LGBTQ youth in South Texas.

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Talks of having a shelter for LGBTQ youth are not new in the Valley. In 2015, a shelter known as Pride Home was in the works in Edinburg. The plans, however, were indefinitely postponed about one year later due to concerns about financial transparency, electricity and water bills not being paid on time, and the home’s deteriorating infrastructure. Pride Home did not respond to Neta’s request for comment.

“I am aware of Pride Home in a general sense, and I’ve had a close, personal relationship with some of the people that were involved in that project,” Ibarra said. “I haven’t had the time to sit down and discuss a ton of the details with them, but I do want to learn from some of the lessons that that experience taught them.”

One of the key takeaways that Ibarra took from the Pride Home is stressing the financial accountability and legitimacy of this new project. The people behind the LGBTQ center want to make sure that it is set up in a way that’s transparent.

Ibarra adds that the goal is to make the center successful long-term. To do that, they are not going to rush and do this overnight. They are taking the steps to make sure the project will sustain itself for many years to come.

As for the name of the center, the group has a list of possible honorees to name the project. The decision will be made collectively, but for now, it is just being called the “RGV LGBTQ+ Community Center Project.”

STEP is analyzing data collected through surveys at their events to create a report detailing what community members want out of the proposed center. The report will be discussed at the September STEP meeting (date to be determined) and will serve as a guide for the planning process.

Currently, there is no timetable set on when the center will open, but more information and the progress of the project will be unveiled in the months to come at the monthly STEP meetings.

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