Behind the scenes at Wingspan, Tucson’s LGBT community center

By Liz Massey, Oct. 23, 2014.

Wingspan, Tucson’s LGBT community center, officially moved into the offices of the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation (SAAF) Aug. 1, and preparations to officially merge the two organizations are nearing completion. While the center has faced a number of financial threats during 2014, those close to the organization assert that Wingspan, which has served Tucson since 1988, will emerge from this transition successfully by relying on the traits that have kept it running for more than 25 years.

Wingspan vacated this location, the former site of its EON Youth Lounge, earlier this year.

Bold Beginnings

In the years following Stonewall, Tucson leapfrogged ahead of Phoenix in terms of legal recognition for LGBT people. Christopher Pankratz, managing editor of Tucson’s LGBT newspaper The Observer Weekly and a commissioner-at-large for the Tucson LGBT Commission, noted that the city passed a gay-inclusive anti-discrimination ordinance in 1977 that covered employment, housing and public accommodations.

“Tucson is a progressive haven in Arizona and has always been a leader in LGBT rights,” he said.

Around the time the ordinance was passed, community members began organizing informal support groups for queer youth. According to archival materials on the Tucson Gay Museum website, there were several attempts to create a gay community center in the 1970s and early 1980s, but the groups faced great difficulty in obtaining nonprofit status from the IRS, which restricted their ability to obtain grants and other types of funding.

As the 1980s drew to a close, Tucsonians gathered to make another attempt to organize a center. Ken Godat and Joyce Bolinger, contributors to a written history of Wingspan posted on the center’s website, reported that 50 people met on Feb. 7, 1988, at a local Unitarian Universalist church to form a gay and lesbian resource center.

The Wingspan history continues, “[The organizers] envisioned a space where meetings could be held on a regular basis, a lending library could be available, and an info line telephone service could be established to share community information.

“Wayne Blankenship suggested the name Wingspan, and the group agreed. As Amy Funghi wrote in Wingspan’s first newsletter, UpFront, ‘The word Wingspan … represents the enfolding of wings around us, cradling us in our struggle for survival. It expresses our desire for freedom; the freedom symbolized by a bird in flight. And it represents the spreading of our own wings, as each of us reach beyond our limits.’”

The brightly decorated lounge at Wingspan’s E. Seventh Street location.

The Gay ’90s (and 2000s)

The fledgling community center was able to obtain nonprofit status through an affiliation with the Southwest Alternatives Institute, and began its existence renting a small space in the Pima County/Tucson Women’s Commission Offices on Court Street.

After Wingspan moved to a storefront location on Tucson’s busy Fourth Avenue in 1991, an increasing number of groups met at the center. New dances, art exhibits and social events were held and an annual film festival was inaugurated. The center’s Anti-Violence Project (AVP) was inaugurated in 1993, and the EON Youth Program was started in 1994. In 1998, the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance (SAGA) was formed and later became a program of the center.

During the 1990s and 2000s, the community center went from an all-volunteer organization to a nonprofit with more than a dozen paid staff members and hundreds of volunteers. It added outreach programs to serve older gay adults and the city’s large Latino LGBT population.

Pankratz said that these expansions spread Wingspan’s influence throughout the Tucson metro area.

“Wingspan has served as a gateway to the community for many allies. It filled a special need for a LGBTQ community center where all were welcome,” he said. “Staff and volunteers were trained in dealing with the unique needs of individuals from all orientations and gender expressions.”

A rally outside the group’s former headquarters in 2009.

Celebration and Uncertainty

A high point in the history of the center came last year, when Wingspan celebrated its 25th anniversary. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild issued a proclamation in February, and the center’s annual dinner featured a video recapping the organization’s accomplishments.

However, early this summer, local publications revealed that Wingspan was facing several financial challenges, including a dramatic increase in rent at its space on 430 E. Seventh St. when its lease ended in July and a continuing loss of grants and other key sources of funding.

On June 16 the board voted on to dissolve the paid position of executive director, which had been filled by Carol Grimsby since April 2013. Wingspan’s board began conversations with SAAF about a merger, and prioritized preserving the EON and AVP programs and the staff associated with them.

Pankratz said he viewed the struggles that Wingspan has endured over the past year as reflective of larger shifts in the Tucson LGBT community. He noted that Fluxx, a nonprofit LGBT community arts space in the city, was also fighting to survive financially.

“We need to rethink how these organizations can function,” Pankratz asserted. “If they are to survive, programs like this must be self-sustaining.”

A New Chapter

By Aug. 1, Wingspan had sold much of its office equipment, and staff associated with the EON and AVP programs moved their offices into the SAAF facility. Wendell Hicks, executive director for SAAF, said experts were reviewing paperwork for the Wingspan-SAAF merger and that he expected the process to be completed soon.

He noted that the SAAF board planned to add two seats to integrate members of the Wingspan board into his organization.

He also said he had spoken with community groups for whom Wingspan had been the fiscal agent and discussions were underway to determine how the newly merged organization could assist these groups. SAGA, which had been a part of the center for many years, issued a press release on July 31 announcing that they were ending their association with Wingspan and would return to their original status as an independent, grassroots-based group.

SAAF hosted a community cocktail event Sept. 25, in Tucson, where SAAF discussed the next steps for Wingspan with the community, and announced that the annual Wingspan Dinner had been rescheduled for Feb. 14, 2015.

Additionally, SAAF is in the process of coordinating a community needs assessment to determine how to best preserve the Wingspan “brand” within the AIDS service organization, Hicks said.

“We want to stabilize things, build trust, and do a careful needs assessment to find out what is wanted, and more importantly, what the community can support,” he said. “It’s not just about ‘saving’ Wingspan, but also about changing the way we operate.”

While Wingspan’s future is uncertain at the moment, Hicks was confident that Tucson’s queer and allied community would participate with SAAF in the re-imagining of what the center’s role could be.

“I’m not scared,” he said. “I believe we’ll figure this out. Our board didn’t hesitate when they were asked to step up to the plate … they knew that the option of Wingspan going away wasn’t an option, and realized how important the community center was to Tucson.”

Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation (SAAF)

375 S. Euclid Ave., Tucson

520-628-SAAF (7223)

Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday- Friday;

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