The Pacific Center for Human Growth, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, is the third oldest LGBTQ center in the country. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

There is a nonprofit on Telegraph just south of campus where everyone is invited to be their authentic selves. 

The Pacific Center for Human Growth sprung into existence in 1973 as a response to a gay bashing in Oakland. What started as a small support group and phone hotline has expanded to serve more than 4,000 people every year through its sliding-scale therapy programs, 16 peer groups, and clinical training programs for graduate level interns.

It’s the oldest LGBTQ center in the Bay Area, and the third oldest in the country, opened on the heels of New York and Los Angeles.

“It’s often said that this is the only place where people can be fully, freely themselves,” said board president Vera Hannush on a recent weekday as she sipped peppermint tea on the center’s back porch. She is shrouded in morning light, wearing large cherry-red glasses and a slightly oversized suit coat. Hannush joined Pacific Center in 2014 as a board member and — realizing she loved spending time there — quickly rose to board president and peer group facilitator.As with many folks at Pacific Center, Hannush has a story. When she came out to her Armenian-Assyrian father he was devastated. Where he’s from, people are killed for being queer, she said. “But eventually he realized he was going to lose me because, you know, I’m queer and that’s never going to change,” she said. The father came around and now expectantly asks her when she’ll give him another daughter.He thinks of it as something we share, which is a little weird. But I’ll go with it from where we were before.”

At Pacific Center, Hannush facilitates the Feminine of Center Middle Eastern Queer Womyn and Trans (FOCMEQWT) peer group, a community that has helped her grow into a Middle Eastern identity that feels genuine. She said that while families or communities may not be accepting, this group is where someone can be all of their identities at once and be celebrated for each one of them.

“Now, when I go into spaces that are Middle Eastern that aren’t queer I get confused because I feel like, oh, everyone who’s Middle Eastern is queer because this is my community. It’s pretty funny,” she says.

Other peer groups include the Loving Ourselves Uniting Diversity (LOUD) Youth Group – an after-school program for LGBTQ youth and their friends –, several senior support groups in various Bay Area locations, an AA support group, and a queer femmes group.

The Loving Ourselves Uniting Diversity (LOUD) Youth Group in session. Photo: Courtesy of Pacific Center
The Loving Ourselves Uniting Diversity (LOUD) Youth Group in session. Photo: Courtesy of Pacific Center

Said Hannush: “What touches me about this [queer femmes] group is we’re in a time when the demographics are changing and we’re very welcoming. There are trans femmes, gender non-conforming femmes, if you have, may, or used to identify – the group is open to you.”

The sliding-scale therapy services at the center help with everything from grief and depression to gender identity and the challenges of living with HIV. Counseling is offered to individuals, couples, and families.

Pacific Center thrives because it has shown a willingness to change as new ideas gain traction. In an effort to promote dialogue, the center hosts LGBTQ  ‘intergenerational mixers’ where queer folks of every age are invited to mingle and have conversations.

“I’ve learned so much about what it meant to be an activist back in the day and what the older generation feels now– what’s important to them now, what’s confusing. A lot of the time gender is confusing for them,” Hannush said.

Hannush recalls a specific incident relating to the mixer. “I asked an elder gentlemen, ‘Who’s your queer hero?’ And he said [it was] me” – she points at herself – “the young people who are my age, fighting today. And I said ‘you are the people who paved the way for all of this.’ It was a beautiful moment. These things are unforgettable and (the elderly) are not here forever.”

Vera Hannush, Board President of the Pacific Center: “It’s often said that this is the only place where people can be fully, freely themselves.” Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Vera Hannush, Board President of the Pacific Center: “It’s often said that this is the only place where people can be fully, freely themselves.” Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Since the presidential election last year, the waiting list for therapy has sharply increased and peer group discussions now often veer towards how to cope with the new realities of living in the US. 

“In the times we’re facing, it feels like it is years ago – like we’re kind of having to re-fight old fights and also face new challenges,” said Hannush.

And the center itself has been the target of hate crimes – in 2002 when its bulletin board was plastered with anti-gay slogans and swastikas and, more recently, this October when a man burned the rainbow flag hanging on the front steps of the center and punched a staff member in the face when they tried to intervene. The man was arrested that day.

Asked how she responds to such incidents, Hannush said: “It just makes me double, triple my commitment to this precious community organization and the LGBTQIAA community it serves.”

The events are clearly upsetting for the LGBTQ community, however, not least because the Pacific Center is seen as a respite from this kind of vitriol. Yet, as is its way, the Pacific Center is thinking up new approaches to solve the issue of hate crimes, and will soon be holding a forum on safety in safe spaces.

Many people from the broader community wrote letters and made phone calls in support of the center after the most recent attack, some even showing up to chalk the sidewalk with rainbows and hearts and adorn the front of the center with new flags.

“The older community is also facing old fears. Both generations are facing trauma during these times, but what I’ve found amazing is the unique comfort that comes when multiple generations intermingle,” said Hannush. “It’s a comfort, a source of strength, and a source of healing all at the same time. We need this now more than ever.”

Melati Citrawireja is a writer, photographer and curious thinker about the underbelly of places. She began contributing to Berkeleyside after a summer internship in 2015 and earned a BA in Development...