Providing safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community

Dr. Carla Smith, CEO of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, discussed the organization’s plans for Pride and an upcoming summer camp in an interview with New York Nonprofit Media.

Dr. Carla Smith, CEO of The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center

Dr. Carla Smith, CEO of The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center Marcus Cooper for Milk Makeup

Dr. Carla Smith doesn’t believe in limiting LGBTQ+ pride to June. As the new CEO of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, she knows this month’s events are only a taste of what the organization offers year round. Since her start in February, Smith has championed the center’s healthcare services while developing plans to expand programming to meet community needs. She aims to provide wellness resources that recognize the unique needs of individuals while being cognizant of their multiple identities. Considering the recent onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation nationwide, she hopes the center can provide a space for queer and trans individuals to find comfort and healing. Smith spoke with New York Nonprofit Media about Pride celebrations at the center, leadership opportunities for young professionals and the importance of affirming LGBTQ+ youth. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

We’re halfway through Pride Month. How did you curate this year’s calendar of events in celebration? 

I started at the center about a little over three months ago, so a lot of the planning was already underway. The team worked hard to make sure we have a variety of events available. Traditional events like the garden party, which everybody's really excited about, are coming up. 

We’re working with other partner organizations to get out the vote. We’ll be having our Pride Pit Stop during the Pride Parade, where we offer support and a place to rest and relax and re-energize in the center. As far as I'm concerned, Pride at the center is 365 days a year as we keep our doors open to the community. June is just a culmination of some of those events. We’ll even be extending some things beyond the June timeframe, including parades around the city. 

The center’s outpatient substance use treatment program is New York state’s only licensed outpatient program specifically designed for the LGBTQ+ community. How does your organization approach substance use treatment so that it is both affirming and effective for LGBTQ+ individuals? 

Similar to all of our other programming, it is very client-centric. We work with people where they are to understand the particular needs and goals that they have for themselves. We provide our services in a way that is non judgmental, affirming and recognizant of the intersecting ways that our clients identify. Our services are designed to be responsive to what clients want and not what service providers may dictate in this arena. We make sure to celebrate their identity and support those identities based on the goals they've set up for themselves. 

This is the way that the center has operated across all of our programming, not just our substance use services. We maintain a welcoming, open, supportive environment for anyone who walks through our doors, whether they have insurance or not, and make sure that our services are accessible to everyone who needs them.  

How have the center’s internship and leadership opportunities for youth helped them progress in their careers? 

I've had the privilege of seeing many of our amazing youth go through some of that programming over the last three months. There are a lot of social justice focused projects that they're wanting to take forward and they receive support from staff to be able to do those things. We've seen some people come out of internship programs with paid employment opportunities. 

We're looking to expand these opportunities so that we can increase individuals' access to the employment that they're interested in. These experiences allow them to enhance their professional careers and move along the sectors that they're interested in. The kids feel great about themselves through the work. They're seeing the impact, so we’re feeling really good about the work that they're doing. 

The center provides various counseling programs such as family therapy and the LIFT Certification Program. Can you talk about the importance and impact of providing support to the families and caregivers of LGBTQ+ individuals? 

We must understand how to support kids who are identifying themselves in ways that parents aren't necessarily used to. We also have to support that process for the parents and help them understand ways in which they can support their kids. We are expanding this programming to include an Article 31 mental health program which will allow us to not only provide long term counseling and support to children, ages 13 and older, but family counseling along the way, depending on families’ and individual interests in that type of programming. 

We know that LGBTQ+ kids are often targeted and bullied, so it’s important to provide short term and long term counseling and support, not just to the kids, but to their parents, so that they can navigate those very challenging situations that occur outside of the center. We must support them along the way, so that they don't feel so isolated and alone, and bring them together in community with other parents and families who are experiencing similar situations. 

There is a summer camp planned for queer and transgender youth in August. What programming does it offer and how does it strive to foster community? 

Having a safe space for LGBTQ+ kids to go to is amazing, but it's not always something that happens. This camp offers opportunities for kids to come together in a safe space, to socialize in an affirming environment, and to engage with other kids who identify in intersecting ways. It is a great opportunity for us to build community, enhance the kids’ self esteem and give them a space to be themselves and play and experience joy outside of the school year. It also allows them to build relationships with each other that carry beyond the summer and into the school year so they have long term friends, chosen family in some cases, who can support them during the school year and beyond that timeframe. 

There’s lots of activities that the kids get to engage in, but more importantly, they get to do that in an affirming environment, supported by staff, and talk to each other about challenges that they may be experiencing. They get to come together and create solutions for those situations as they move forward. This camp is also a way for us to help parents of the kids by giving them a little bit of a break and supporting their children during a particular time where sometimes there's not a lot to do.