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New LGBT center planned for Suffolk

In his early 20s, Colby Miller moved away from Suffolk to Los Angeles and found what he had been missing — a sense of belonging that came with finding an LGBT Center.

Now 29 and having returned to Suffolk, Miller wants to provide a place like that for the Western Tidewater region’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“I didn’t feel like I could fully be myself in Suffolk,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of closed-mindedness and judgment surrounding the subject of being gay, I found, so I retreated away to a place that was more welcoming and accepting in that regard.”

Miller is a partner in developing a new LGBT Center for Suffolk, citing a lack of such services in the region, and he has a needs assessment survey running to determine where it should be and what services it should provide.

“We hope the survey will pinpoint what the Suffolk center should look like,” Miller said. “Maybe there’s a need to offer HIV/STD testing, counseling and support groups, or to be more youth-centric as sort of a drop-in. We hope the survey will guide us in shaping what the center will ultimately look like, so it’s advantageous to get as much input as possible.”

The center would offer services to the LGBT community in Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight County, Southampton County and surrounding areas. Currently, the closest one is the LGBT Life Center in Norfolk.

LGBT centers also help those who are discovering their sexuality or gender identity, Miller said, as well as playing host to local pride events, cultural gatherings and town halls for LGBT residents, and are the most visible institutions and advocates for people in the LGBT community in areas where gay villages are not established.

“There’s a void in LGBT-related resources in Suffolk and Western Tidewater,” Miller said. “For those that live in the most westerly reaches of our region, the travel time to reach services such as those provided at the LGBT Life Center in Norfolk, could be up to an hour drive or longer. The LGBT Life Center is doing phenomenal work, and we’re not competition. We hope to offer similar services closer to home here in Western Tidewater.”

While there aren’t specific numbers on the size of the region’s LGBT community, Miller said he’s received responses from many demographics.

“The preliminary results we’ve received so far through our needs assessment survey reflects there is a sizable LGBT population in Suffolk that desires to have the services a center can provide,” Miller said. “What’s more, people as young as middle and high school students have been responding to the survey up to senior citizens, so the news of the center is definitely reaching a wide audience in the community.”

Miller said survey respondents are thus far nearly evenly split on whether such a center should be located downtown or in North Suffolk. He hopes to have a better idea after the survey closes Dec. 5. But no matter where the center is located, Miller expects a satellite location to come in the other part of the city, and he is thankful to the people who have completed the survey and have offered their support.

Miller wants the center to be like what he found in Los Angeles: a safe place for LGBT youth and adults and for those who are questioning their sexuality — a place where they could belong.

“I feel like if Suffolk had something like this when I was growing up, that it would have benefited me greatly and a lot of others I grew up with that didn’t fully come out of the closet until years later,” Miller said, “whether because their friends made jokes using the word ‘gay’ as an insult and they were afraid of losing friends, fear of being bullied or harassed, fears that their families wouldn’t love them and shun them, or fears that family would disregard them as going through a phase for example.

“Now that I’m back in my hometown I want to be able to offer these services to Suffolk and all of Western Tidewater.”

Anyone, whether they identify as LGBT or not, can take the needs assessment survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/SUFFOLKLGBT. The survey ends Dec. 5.

For more information, follow Suffolk LGBT Center of Hampton Roads on Facebook at facebook.com/SuffolkLGBT.