Chris Rosenblum: Centre LGBTQA’s community fair event aims to build ties

Tamar London has a vision.

She sees mutual understanding and acceptance. She pictures business owners meeting new customers, and vice versa.

She imagines a hall full of promise, painting the way toward a better future for everyone present.

It’s not a dream, but an expectation.

London has high hopes for the inaugural Centre LGBTQA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning and Asexual/Ally) Support Network Community Fair. It’s scheduled for 5-7 p.m. Feb. 15 in Alumni Hall at the Penn State HUB-Robeson Center.

The event aims to help connect the local LGBTQA community with welcoming businesses, service providers, congregations and municipal officials, fostering important ties. Speakers and entertainers will add to the convivial atmosphere.

“It should be really fun,” said London, a local photographer who’s co-organizing the fair. “What we’re basically hoping is that it will be a fun celebration.”

If that’s the case, her fledgling group will be off to a stellar start.

Late last year, the Centre LGBTQA Support Network, or CLSN, formed to build on the work of PFLAG’s local chapter. The nonprofit PFLAG, formerly known as Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, calls itself the nation’s largest family and ally organization for gay and transgender people.

In Centre County, the PFLAG chapter still holds a community Thanksgiving dinner, but it was on the wane when several local residents contemplated reviving it. Then they had another idea: Why not widen the circle?

“We realized that we needed something that was more encompassing,” London said.

So began CLSN, inspired by the Penn State LGBTA Student Resource Center’s advocacy and support programs.

“They do a lot for the university community, but we wanted something that’s more (local) community oriented,” London said.

In that spirit, the idea for the fair came about.

The goal, London said, is “to bring everybody together” in one place for everyone’s benefit. Gay residents and their allies can see what’s available out there; businesses and groups can market themselves.

“That’s why we’re hoping there are things to be gained on both side,” London said.

So far, more than 15 businesses, including London’s, have registered, and about 10 more have expressed interest. Attending makes good sense for some with same-sex marriages now legal in Pennsylvania.

“I think for businesses that are involved in wedding planning, this a great time to market to the LGBTA community,” London said. “It’s a whole new segment entering the wedding market.”

Local physicians also will have tables, identifying sensitive medical providers and, ideally, strengthening a relationship with gay patients sometimes marred by distrust and miscommunication. As community outreach, a State College police representative will be on hand to field questions.

Scheduled speakers include Penn State theater professor and laureate Susan Russell, State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham and local attorney Andrew Shubin, who will discuss legal issues the gay community still faces.

“We don’t have any way for people to figure out what the landscape is here,” said fair co-organizer Kerry Wiessmann. “That’s the goal of this, to help people understand.”

When she moved to Centre County 30 years ago, times were different for a lesbian — less acceptance, more risk from prejudice and hatred. A gay hotline was a lifeline for many men and women.

Ironically, as attitudes have progressed, the support resources shrunk, Wiessmann said. She hopes CLSN, starting with the fair, can help fill the gap.

“Some of these services have fallen by the wayside, and there is no place for you to go to town and feel connections in the community here that will help you feel welcome and loved,” she said.

While the fair is CLSN’s first big undertaking, it won’t be the group’s public debut.

On Friday, it’s sponsoring the launch of a planned monthly Friday Night Live series at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe. From 8 to 10 p.m., the lineup will include singer Sylvia Feldman, readings from the Queer Poets Society and an open mic session.

But it’s really the warm-up act for the main event, where the diversions will include singer Heidi Biever and DJ Alex Nepa. Also planned is a silent raffle to cover the fair’s expenses and build a $1,000 scholarship for a graduating State College Area High School student interested in working toward full equality for all regardless of his or her career plans.

London looks forward to two hours advancing the community further in the right direction.

“I feel like the more we’re able to be our true selves, that everybody is able to be their true self, the happier everybody is,” she said.

“I feel like we’re definitely making strides in the right direction when it comes to LGBT rights, and knowledge and education about the LGBT community, but there’s still a lot of work to do, and I’m passionate about it.”