Greater Erie Alliance for Equality
A gentle shift in focus for Erie's LGBT community
It started over a decade ago with a vision that gently blossomed into education and advocacy. Greater Erie Alliance for Equality has spent the better part of the last few years refining that mission and finding ways in which they can continue to educate and be of service to the LGBT community, allies, and the larger Erie community. From awareness events and service projects for community – and now with a broader focus on providing education and training to all of Erie, GEAE strives to shed light on gaps in support, especially given the lack of available information and services in the region.
Dr. Will Koehler, who is serving in his last year as president, talks about this mission and how this shift took hold:
When I was elected board president in 2014 I realized that GEAE had a great mission and great programs, but it lacked a meaningful way to assess our progress in accomplishing this mission. I couldn't answer the question, "What would it look like if GEAE fulfilled its mission?" I saw that as my primary responsibility as the vision caster of the organization. The previous board presidents had served the organization so well. Bob Howden took GEAE from a group of well-meaning people trying to do their best to a working board of directors with a mission. Dr. [Richard] McCarty added an advisory council and established our signature events. As I pass on the mantle of responsibility, I don't expect that we will have completed all of it, but I will leave them with a stronger infrastructure to support the organization and a clearer vision of what accomplishing this mission looks like.
One of those signature events is the Afternoon for Equality, a day of celebration and fundraising to be held this year on Sunday, June 11. Each year, awards are given to companies or people whose work has advanced LGBT equality and understanding. This year's fundraiser will focus on the LGBT family, and in addition to the community recognition, GEAE will award scholarships to students entering college or technical school in the fall.
GEAE has also added a free event for the day to support and stand in solidarity with the national D.C. rally. Progress Toward Equality: An Education Event will take place on the Erie County Courthouse steps, highlighting advancements Erie and Erie County have made for the LGBT population, and what inroads still need to be laid. Koehler notes that there is a lot of misinformation in the general population about what rights remain out of reach. "Lots of people think that now that we have marriage equality, the fight is over and that's just not true. We still have work to do to end workplace and housing discrimination, for example."
This type of education for allies and organizations has moved to the forefront of GEAE's mission. Not only providing a regular symposium about LGBT issues and being available for professional development, GEAE now also trains area businesses and organizations to help them become more aware of their responsibility to clients and employees. After conducting a community needs assessment in 2015, GEAE was able to formulate a plan to address those needs.
The 2015 Community Needs Assessment identified many areas of need among our LGBT community members, particularly the more vulnerable segments of the population such as LGBT youth and aging individuals. In addition to leveraging the resources in our community to meet the needs of these vulnerable segments, we also must continue to build bridges and support our allies in other sectors of our community, such as health care, mental health services, government, and law enforcement. There is a lot of work still to be done, and we have only begun to move from a working board of directors to a permanent staff that can carry out the mission we have to create a community where people of all sexual orientations and gender identities are free to contribute their unique strengths and talents.
Koehler notes that because of the lack of support and networking for the LGBT youth population and their vulnerability, GEAE will begin a regional Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) that will welcome students from the neighboring districts, private and parochial schools, and homeschooling environments, so that they can network and be trained to advocate for themselves and take information and skills back to their schools. Information sessions for the GEAE Regional GSA will be held later this month at their office.
Yet, there is still so much to do. We have made some advances, but the city of Erie and Erie County are far below the line when it comes to protections and services for the LGBT community. GEAE and other like-minded organizations are working to improve those areas through education.
Information regarding training programs, the regional GSA information sessions, and other events including tickets for Afternoon for Equality can be found at greateriealliance.org.
Margo Wolfe, Ph.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.