There was a time it would have been a pipe dream – a sprawling building, smack in the middle of downtown Portland, that Maine’s LGBTQ+ community could call its own. A place to gather, to organize, simply to be.

That dream just came true.

“Being a part of this terrific project has been personally very exciting,” state Rep. Barb Wood, D-Portland, board chair of the Equality Community Center, said in a statement. “15 Casco will be a place where everyone is invited, and it will provide unprecedented and meaningful access for all.”

She’s talking about a two-story, circa-1950 building at 15 Casco St., also known as the Equality Community Center’s new home.

Thanks largely to an anonymous donation of $1 million, the 5-year-old center closed on the property Tuesday. Renovations will begin next month after Markum LLP, the building’s current occupant, moves out.

From a purely practical standpoint, it’s a huge step forward. Since it first opened in 2016 at 511 Congress St., the Equality Community Center has squeezed six LGBTQ organizations into 3,000 square feet of rented office space. Without the benevolence of landlord Ed Gardner, even that wouldn’t have been financially doable.

The new location, built as a bank back in 1950, encompasses 20,000 square feet. That’s plenty of room for those member organizations – Equality Maine, Pride Portland!, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, PFLAG, Maine TransNet, and Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders – to spread out a bit.

But this move isn’t just about nicer office digs. The new center will have space for groups to meet, for other justice-based organizations to set up shop, for a café …

And next door, in what is now a parking lot and a Bank of America kiosk, longer-range plans call for an apartment building – affordable homes on the peninsula for folks who have long had to look elsewhere.

Taken together, it’s a sign of ever-changing times.

“The Equality Community Center is really about providing the Maine LGBTQ community and affiliated organizations with a tangible home on the map in Portland,” Matt Dubois, a Portland attorney who serves as the board’s vice chair, said in an interview. “And the reason that’s important is because LGBTQ-identified spaces are disappearing.”

In part, that’s a good thing. Maine – particularly Portland – has become a more accepting place since the days when identifying as non-heterosexual meant you’d best find a place to hide. Today, from same-sex marriage to protections from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, there’s more to celebrate and less to fear.

Peruse the Equality Community Center’s board of directors and you’ll see names of those who have fought long and hard to usher in those changes: Wood, the board chair, became the first openly gay or lesbian elected official in Maine when she won a seat on the Portland City Council in 1988; Dale McCormick, the board treasurer, co-founded the Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance way back in 1984; board member Betsy Smith led EqualityMaine to victory in the same-sex marriage and equal rights battles.

But at the same time, you’ll see younger faces of those who have benefitted from all that sweat and tears and are now committed to carrying the torch forward.

None is younger than Andy Serfes of Portland. He’ll turn 19 in September.

He graduated last spring from Portland High School, the first in his family ever to earn a high school diploma.

He’s now studying liberal arts at Southern Maine Community College, the first step in his quest for a four-year college degree.

And he identifies as both a transgender male and a gay male.

“Honestly, I’m so proud to be part of it,” Serfes said, reflecting on the center between Tuesday’s college classes. “My generation and the generations that come afterwards are going to be very fortunate to have this.”

Serfes grew up moving around from Portland to South Portland to Windham, along with a year in North Carolina.

He came out as transgender when he was 14. And while his adolescence “did have its own challenges,” he knows it could have been far worse.

“It’s a lot easier to grow up now than it was to grow up in the ’70s and ’80s being transgender,” Serfes said.

Indeed. Where once he might have hidden his anguish that the female name on his birth certificate didn’t match the male he knew himself to be, he now speaks openly and proudly to his hometown newspaper about his place in the world.

At the same time, he’s already emerging as a voice of reason, an antidote to those whose myopic definition of “transgender” begins and ends with who uses whose bathroom or who should be allowed to compete on which sports team.

The Equality Community Center’s three-phase plan – become a hub for Maine’s LGBTQ+ community (check), purchase and move into a freestanding facility (in progress) and expand into the housing business (stay tuned) – still has a way to go. In addition to the $1 million donation and others totaling $300,000, another $2.7 million must be raised to meet the center’s lofty goals.

But Serfes is in it for the long haul. Where some see aging veterans of the long fight for equality, he sees only role models.

“Being the youngest (on the board) and working with all these people who have experienced hardship much more than I could imagine is really amazing,” he said. “Especially Dale McCormick. She really inspires me.”

Just as Serfes, in the years ahead, undoubtedly will inspire some kid with a life to live.

To quote the billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett, who knows a thing or two about putting good money to good use, “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: