For Amanda Arbour, being asked to serve as the executive director of the LGBT Center of Central PA was like returning home.
Shortly after coming out as a lesbian, Arbour sought out the center as a place to feel included and be herself.
“I would come to movie screenings, ice cream socials, 3rd in the Burgs,” she said. “Just a lot of the open community events that are less formal. As I’m coming out and finding my community, this was a welcoming place for me and not just in my professional role but just me as a queer person.”
In her new role, Arbour hopes to make the center as welcoming to all queer people as it was to her. Part of that, she says, is “recognizing that, within our LGBTQ community, we have racism.”
“We have transphobia, biphobia, xenophobia,” she said. “All the forms of oppression in our society, unfortunately, are also present within our LGBT communities.”
Tackling such difficult questions about race and identity is well within the reach of Arbour, a lifelong social activist.
After the Philadelphia native graduated from Messiah College, she began work at the campus Service Learning Center “engaging students in local community service opportunities, primarily in Harrisburg, and providing an educational lens through which they could reflect upon and learn from their experiences.”
Shortly after leaving the SLC for the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, Arbour took on the role of director of racial justice at the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg. There, she cut her teeth leading classes and seminars to help businesses, schools, police departments and other institutions challenge racism in their own organizations.
“Anytime you’re challenging things like racism or white supremacy, there will be parts that push back,” she said. “All of us have been socialized within a society that functions on these oppressions and, in particular, in institutions where it’s been so deeply embedded.”
Approaching such thorny topics did not come without some challenges.
“When I would do trainings or sessions, there would always be people who don’t understand why we’re still talking about race—because clearly racism is not an issue anymore,” she said sarcastically. “Or they wouldn’t understand why language is important, or felt offended when we talked about white privilege or didn’t recognize they had privilege. I would say that, with every training, there was always some kind of pushback like that.”
It’s that kind of self-reflection that Arbour hopes to inspire in the queer community through the LGBT Center.
“I definitely felt like it was my responsibility to particularly educate other white people,” she said. “We have a lot of privileges, and part of that is not having to have conversations about privilege or about race. So, I think there’s a lot less tolerance for that and a lot less practiced ability in having those conversations.”
For Arbour, this also means addressing the divisions within the queer community and between different identities.
“We often talk about gender and sexuality as gay or straight, men or women, these kind of black and white separations,” she said. “What does it mean when you’re in between or outside of those social constructions? What does it mean for people who are intersex, bisexual or nonbinary?”
Arbour wants the center to be a space where everyone feels at home.
“Trans women of color, queer immigrants who might be undocumented—those that live at those intersections can feel like they can bring their whole selves here and feel recognized and affirmed and see themselves reflected, too,” she said.
To Arbour, the main challenge of the LGBT Center is making sure the organization is well known throughout the midstate as both a resource and a safe space.
“A lot of people don’t know the center is here or don’t know the breadth and depth of services and programs that we offer,” said Arbour, citing the community events, art showings, fundraisers and support groups hosted by the center. “So I wanted to be very intentional in finding creative ways beyond typical ways of advertising to get the word out.”
This is a challenge of particular importance when it comes to gay students and youth.
“I think of, in particular, our youth who are experiencing high levels of bullying and harassment and suicide,” she said.
According to a 2015 study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, more than two-thirds of LGBT students in Pennsylvania had experienced verbal harassment for their sexual orientation or gender identity and nearly one-third had experienced physical harassment.
“I want every queer kid in school to know we’re here and that this space is available,” Arbour said.
And she knows firsthand the value such a space can have to queer people wrestling with their own identities.
“Being a gay woman, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this is a neat opportunity to invest in the center that has been important to me personally,” she said.
After all, it played a large role in her own coming-out process.
“I believe very deeply in the work the center does and in creating a safe space and educational programming, supportive services and all the things the center has become known for,” she said.
The LGBT Center of Central PA is located at 1306 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.centralpalgbtcenter.org.
Author: Gillian Branstetter