DENVER, Colo. — LGBTQ+ community centers have been operating virtually for more than a year now, and they’re providing crucial support in a modern way, even for those who aren’t so tech-savvy.
The Center on Colfax is the largest community space in the Rocky Mountain region providing a home away from home for the LGBTQ+ community.
“What we do here is offer a safe space for people to be themselves,” said Joe Foster, the vice president of development and communication for The Center on Colfax.
There were dozens of people of all ages in the building, from morning until night, until COVID-19 hit.
“A lot of people in our community feel isolated, and the pandemic is just another layer of isolation,” said Foster.
He knew once the center’s doors had to close, they couldn’t just shut down.
“Our main focus was to make sure that our community felt safe and that they weren't isolated,” said Foster.
So, Foster and his team took the entire center virtual. From online book clubs, a virtual Pride parade, and even a zoom musical, the center adapted quickly. The transition helped both young people and seniors stay connected without contact.
“Our LGBTQ elders really took to the virtual setting faster than we thought they would,” said Foster.
For 91-year-old Kenneth Felts, getting online was a lifeline.
“It has been a help to me as a place to go, even though it's virtually, but I go,” said Felts. “I've met a number of people there on the screen.”
This new interaction was especially uplifting after Felts was diagnosed with cancer in 2019 and almost lost his life.
“They prescribed 10 treatments of chemotherapy,” said Felts. “About the fifth treatment, I said, ‘I can't take it anymore. I don't want it. I'll die instead.’”
Thankfully, the chemotherapy worked. As his body was healing, COVID-19 opened emotional wounds.
“My lockdown started well before other people's because of the cancer,” said Felts of the extreme isolation he felt living alone, despite frequent visits from his daughter and grandchildren. “I had no idea what I was going to do to keep myself alive."
It was an idea from his personal trainer that helped light his spark to survive. Felts found inspiration within his own life story and was encouraged to write a memoir.
At 90 years old, Felts began reliving his life through his memoir and realized most people didn’t know who he truly was.
“Nobody knew. I was going to go to the grave as a straight person,” said Felts.
However, he knew he couldn’t hold back his true self much longer. He came out to his daughter. In talking about some of the brightest chapters of his memoir, he recounts a relationship in the 1950s with a man named Phillip.
After telling his daughter, he told his friends on social media.
“Didn't mean to, but I put it on a public Facebook and wham! I started getting memos, letters, and everything else,” said Felts.
He found so much acceptance online and didn’t want it to end.
“It's a freedom that I received from coming out that made it possible to really start enjoying life,” he said.
Felts wanted to enjoy a connection with his newfound LGBTQ+ family, and The Center on Colfax’s virtual elder program brought him just that.
“It gave me something to look forward to,” said Felts with a smile. “There’s a writer’s group that I participate in one day a week.
“Just within our elder services program, we have more engagement on the virtual side than what we had in person in previous years. That's a really amazing thing when you think about the demographic,” said John White, the events director at The Center on Colfax, who is also spearheading Denver’s Pride celebrations.
Because of their digital success, even when the center reopens its doors, there will now always be an online option.
“I think it’s going to be very helpful and just make people feel more like they belong to someplace, and I think that's what is going to help keep this place going as we move forward,” said Foster.
Forward to a place where community and happiness can be a click away, no matter who you are or how old you are.
“Coming out at 90, it's never too late to find out who loves you, who doesn’t, and to let yourself love,” said Felts.
Foster said this pandemic has given the LGBTQ+ community a chance to become even closer and more active during this tough time. “We are still the strongest community, and this pandemic has shown how strong you are, how resilient you are and how you're not going to let something like the pandemic stop you from being who you are,” said Foster.
If you’d like to join a virtual group with The Center on Colfax, click HERE.
For more information on this year’s hybrid Pride celebration in Denver, click HERE.