A look back at The LGBT+ Center of Central Florida as told from some of its executive directors

By : Watermark Staff
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The LGBT+ Center of Central Florida has seen a number of name changes in its several decades as the beacon of Orlando’s LGBTQ community. Throughout its years, The Center has also changed locations, starting with its first brick-and-mortar building on Mills Ave. in 1987. After bouncing to a few different locations on Colonial Dr., it settled in at its current location at 946 N. Mills Ave. in 2000.

Since finding its permanent home, The Center has had some renovations and expansions; adding more safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community to have gatherings, meetings and parties, or just a comfy chair to sit and have a little quiet time. The Center is many things to many people.The Center is also the place where, as a community, we go when we are fearful, scared and don’t know where to turn. It was that space during the AIDS epidemic when our family and friends were dying. It was that space when we were told that our love was less than that of a man and a woman being together. And it was that space when a hate-filled person walked into one of our clubs and killed 49 of our own and injured dozens more.

The Center isn’t just the building, but the people who work and volunteer inside of it every day. It is the time, energy and dedication given by each of its executive directors over the years. The Center has had many directors who have taken the reins and made it into what the community needed it to be at the time.

Watermark reached out to four of the executive directors who helmed The Center during milestone moments in its history—The Center’s first paid director Michael Wanzie, the director who expanded The Center’s HIV testing program Randy Stephens, the director during the tragic event at Pulse Terry DeCarlo and the current director George Wallace, who expanded The Center outside of Orlando and opened the first expansion in Kissimmee.

Unfortunately, we were unable to hear back from DeCarlo in time for this story; however, Wanzie, Stephens and Wallace spoke with us about their time at the head of The Center.

Michael Wanzie, started as The Center executive director in 1990

Christen Kelley

Before Michael Wanzie became the first paid director of The Center in 1990, he says it was originally meant to be a place for the LGBTQ community to socialize.
“When I first came there, there were no politically motivated or activism-type groups there,” Wanzie says. “They did a lot of backyard barbecues and potlucks and movie nights, it was meant really to be a social outlet. And I’m one of the people who began immediately to stir that pot.”

Losing a lover in the AIDS crisis motivated Wanzie to get involved in the gay rights movement. He felt The Center should be more than a place to gather, rather it should be part of the fight for change. He got The Center included in the AIDS Memorial Quilt project that was gaining national attention by sewing their own quilt to honor Central Floridians who died from the disease.

“It became a bone of contention whether The Center should be involved in anything political or policy-driven and it did kind of drive a wedge. Some people left and some people got on the bandwagon,” Wanzie says. “One thing led to another and I became the director and we became very much involved in getting people politically motivated to be activists.”

Another problem during his early days at The Center was the push to remove LGBTQ people from city parks. There was an obscure ordinance that banned people from leaving the designated park pathways, but it was almost never enforced.

“So of course, when mom and her baby and her stroller left the pathway, nothing happened,” Wanzie says. “But if you were a single male perceived to be gay, and you stepped off the sidewalk, you were arrested.”
Wanzie started staging protests, sit-ins and press conferences, morphing The Center into a hub of activism. He says Orlando has come a long way for the LGBTQ community since then.

“If you think back to the fact that here we were having to have sit-ins and protests and whatnot just to be allowed to walk around a park and be unbothered like anybody else,” he says, “and now we have our Come Out with Pride celebration in a city park with 150,000 people there and the full backing of the city with a band shell painted in rainbow colors, it’s a pretty staggering difference.”

Back in the late 80s, the only place for gay people to socialize were bars that many were afraid to go to, Wanzie recalls, especially closeted people. Anti-gay people would stand outside the bars and write down the license plate numbers of vehicles in the parking lot. Later, they would contact that person’s employer to tell them they were seen at a gay bar. Wanzie says The Center provided a safe place for gay people to go if they needed someone to talk to.

“I remember I was so fearful the first time I walked into the Parliament House on my own,” Wanzie says. “Really frightened to go there, and how much less frightening it would’ve been, as a young person just coming to terms with being gay, if you were walking in the light of day into a building in a business district. That’s quite different.”

Wanzie says one of the first things he did at The Center was organize fundraising events. Before his time as director, The Center relied solely on donations and the organization was quickly outgrowing its two-room location on Mills Ave.

Being an entertainer, Wanzie wanted to give the community an event that wasn’t at a bar but was still fun and interesting. He decided to buy out a dinner theater for one night and sell the tickets to benefit The Center. With help from Scott Alles and Larry Nacastro, a local affluent couple, he was able to afford it.

“I think besides the annual gay picnic it was one of the very first publicized gay events that wasn’t happening in a bar,” Wanzie says. “And some were really concerned that people wouldn’t allow themselves to be seen walking into something in a public area that identified as being a gay event, but we sold out all 350 seats almost immediately.”

With the success of the theater event, Wanzie wanted to do something even bigger. He had the idea to charter an all-gay cruise. He bought out a Sea Escape six-hour gambling cruise, and again people had doubts he would sell all the tickets. But all 970 seats were sold within hours.

“That’s how thirsty, at the time, people were to do anything outside of a gay bar,” Wanzie says. “We made $28,000 profit off that six-hour event, and it was basically with that money that we were able to move The Center to a larger facility. So The Center, while I was there, became a huge purveyor of entertainment and social events that raised money and helped fund the place.”

Wanzie realized The Center needed to be more than a social place when he first worked there as a volunteer. He started receiving calls from suicidal people who were struggling with being gay. The Center was ill-equipped to deal with the calls, as was Wanzie.

“I had no idea how to deal with it,” he says. “I was very comfortable with my own sexuality and I just thought, ‘this cannot just be a social place to come and have a picnic. There’s a need out there that’s so much greater.’”

They started holding seminars to teach The Center employees how to handle suicide calls, and eventually the discussion groups turned into actual psychological counseling for people going through the coming out process.

Since then, The Center has grown into a support system that goes beyond a social gathering space. It now provides education, entertainment, counseling, HIV testing, legal services and more.

Wanzie has seen the Orlando LGBTQ community grow in the decades since The Center opened. From the oppression and abuse they experienced to being free to marry who they want.

“I think one of the best days of my life because of The Center was the day that Florida passed same-sex marriage,” he says. “I thought how I once stood on the steps of city hall, preaching against the people who ran the city and the police department at the time for their mistreatment of gay people. And then to stand there and watch the mayor actually marrying gay people just made tears stream down my face to think how far we’d come.”

The Center will always be a vital component to the city of Orlando in its fight against oppression and discrimination, says Wanzie.

“I just know that in my heart of hearts that it’s The Center that was the impetus for bringing people together and creating Orlando’s gay community,” he says. “The whole idea of an actual community where people came together for common purposes, goals and causes to make life better for gay people was born at The Center.”

Randy Stephens, started as The Center executive director in 2010

Jaime Donelson

When Randy Stephens accepted the job as executive director of The Center in 2010 his first thought was, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

“Normally, in the past, [The Center] has taken every director, chewed them up and spit them back out,” Stephens says. “But I realized there was a need for leadership at the GLBT Center, it was having a lot of issues and financial problems.”

Stephens originally worked a secure job in insurance but felt he wanted to do more in the community. He wasn’t quite sure what was ahead for him, but he says The Center was a project he needed to take on, something he realized while attending church one Sunday.

During that particular service, Stephens recalls his minister giving a sermon about Moses not being afraid to climb Mount Sinai. Stephens says in that moment, he realized that The Center was his Mount Sinai.
Stephens—who was the executive director from 2010-2014—explains that during his time at The Center he didn’t want to be known as the executive director who had to close its doors for financial reasons.

“I was really struggling to keep the doors open. I honestly thought we were going to lose The Center to foreclosure,” says Stephens.

Working with his dedicated staff and team of volunteers, Stephens says they were able to stabilize The Center by streamlining its bills and terminating unneeded contracts. He was also able to ignite interest by expanding services the community needed and by getting the word out that The Center was as much for allies as it was for the LGBTQ community. Stephens says they even tried to make The Center a polling place but the parking lot did not meet the requirements.

“Anything I could have done to get the public into the doors so they could see what we accomplished and that we weren’t anybody to be afraid of, I always tried to do that,” says Stephens.

One service they were offering to the community that expanded under the direction of Stephens was The Center’s HIV testing program.

John Cleveland, The Center’s HIV director at the time, suggested to Stephens that they expand their HIV testing times. The Center went from testing a few hours a day for a couple days a week to testing seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“At the time, we were the only place in Florida that did HIV testing seven days a week. I was very proud of that,” says Stephens. He also explained that after expanding the number of HIV testing days and hours, The Center became the largest HIV testing agency in the state of Florida.

Stephens says that he had many amazing days as The Center’s executive director, but one stands out in his memory as particularly emotional. After helping organize a marriage equality celebration at Lake Eola, Stephens sat down next to the event’s mistress of ceremony Blue Star. They had told everyone attending the event to wear red.

“I will never forget Blue and I sitting there and looking over this sea of red. We both had a lump in our throat and we had to stop ourselves from crying,” he says. “Looking and realizing how much things have changed in Orlando. This was a city that fought the display of gay flags and Pride, and to actually have the community show up in support.”

Stephens expanded The Center’s HIV testing and helped save it from foreclosure, but he says that the spotlight for his time as executive director should be on the community and all the volunteers who gave their own time and money to make it what it is today.

“Most of our accomplishments were done by our volunteers. They’ve been the backbone of The Center. It never would have remained open for as long as it has without them. That’s who the real heroes are,” says Stephens. “The Center is not the building; The Center is the community.”

George Wallace, started as The Center executive director in 2017

Melanie Ararat

George Wallace, 48, has moved in and out of Orlando since 1992. In 2017, the Franklin, N.H. native was settling into a new home with his partner in Indianapolis when he saw an open position for executive director at The Center Orlando. Wallace loved the city and the people in it so much that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“I knew that my heart and everything was back in Orlando,” Wallace says. “I was just really excited with the opportunity because I had previously served on the Board of Directors so I was very familiar with the mission and I knew that, hopefully, I could have an impact.”

Wallace is the current executive director of The Center Orlando and is more committed to The Center and Orlando than ever before.
“It’s been tough moving across the country two times in one year, it has been obviously a strain, but I’m here in Orlando and I’m not going anywhere,” Wallace says.

Before moving away from Central Florida, then moving back after getting hired as executive director, Wallace worked on The Center’s Board of Directors as its secretary. Wallace was a board member during the Pulse shooting in 2016.

That Sunday morning following the tragedy, Wallace went straight to The Center. When he arrived he saw that hundreds of other people had done the same thing.
“It was a safe space and it was a gathering place,” Wallace says. “I just think when people heard the news they wanted to be useful and The Center was the first place they thought of.”

Looking back as executive director, Wallace sees the need of preserving The Center as a place for people to go when they need help or support.

“I just think that it shows that The Center is just as needed today as much as it was 40 years ago,” he says.“I think that it’s crucial for a city this size to have an LGBT Center.”

Wallace’s first day as executive director was Dec. 18, 2017. He had just moved back to Orlando and hadn’t even fully unpacked when he started his new position. The main thing he remembers about his first day was meeting the staff and introducing himself to all of the volunteers.

Coming into his role as executive director, Wallace knew that he wanted to follow the lead of former director Stephens when it came to the importance of acknowledging and respecting volunteers.

“[Stephens’ handling of the volunteers] always inspired me,” Wallace says. “At that time I was executive director of The Orlando Fringe and I just think that volunteers are the backbone of any nonprofit organization. Randy showing that appreciation to the volunteers, that really inspired me.”

Wallace holds a special place in his heart for all the people before him who were involved in The Center. As he approaches the end of his first year as executive director, Wallace says one of his best days so far has been going to The Center’s 40-year anniversary gala and seeing all of those people who have helped him this first year.
“I just took a big sigh of relief and looked out into the audience and saw so many warm and friendly faces,” Wallace says. “People that I’ve known this past year worked so hard to make this event happen.”

The Orlando community has also made a big impression on Wallace. One of many examples he recalls of the community’s love and commitment to The Center came when Wallace hoped to hold an outdoor cookout for all of the volunteers, but when they began to plan for it no one had a grill. One post to Facebook and two days later, he recalls, a grill was delivered to The Center.

“One thing that is amazing is how small this community actually is and I love that because when The Center needs something, people just make it happen,” Wallace says. “The city of Orlando and the outlying areas have been really generous to us and I am very, very thankful for that.”

Overall, Wallace understands that The Center would not have lasted this long if it were not for the selfless people in the Orlando community.
“The greatest lesson I’ve learned is not taking the small things for granted,” Wallace says. “From people holding the door open to people making large financial donations, people are always giving what they are able to give and you can’t take any of that for granted.”

Wallace hopes to give back to the community by focusing on their needs. The Center is expanding in multiple ways. This year, a second location was built in Kissimmee and they are focusing on getting programs up and running there as well as expanding their groups and programming in Orlando.

“I did a survey and people have expressed interest in art programming, so we’re looking at starting art programming and we have a new creative writing workshop that’s really popular,” Wallace says. “So, just letting people know that we’re not just an agency that does HIV testing because a lot of people think that’s the only thing that we do and we do so much more.”

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