- Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
- Gregg Forbis at Rainbow Bridge Community Center in Barre
“There was a lot of negativity around it,” said Hunt, who is a transgender man.
But Hunt, who works as a bike mechanic at Vermont Bicycle Shop, sees signs of modest change in his hometown. He is the leader of Pride Rides, a Barre-based LGBTQ mountain bike club that meets up all over the state. Barre’s holding a drag ball in honor of LGBTQ pride month in June — something it’s done since 2015.
And in the latest sign of improving conditions, a local group has created the Rainbow Bridge Community Center in a downtown Barre storefront to serve as a meeting place for LGBTQ+ youth and adults. The space, which opens June 4, sports a lounge with couches, an air hockey table, a kitchen, a computer room, and a wall that will be turned into an art gallery.
The center is a nonprofit, supported by grants and donations, with a seven-person board. It will provide free mental health counseling, social programs, and event space, with some of its hours dedicated to youth, and some to adults. Eventually, founder Gregg Forbis hopes to offer rapid HIV testing there. Staff are unpaid for now, he said.
The LGBTQ+ center is a first for Barre, said Forbis, a longtime resident. He thinks the city is ready. And he hopes everyone looking for community will come by.
“It’s for anybody who is willing to accept all the different colors of the rainbow,” Forbis said.
“There are rainbow flags in peoples’ windows, and when I drove around, I said, I don’t know many of these people. I’d like to set up a place where we can come and meet each other,” Forbis said. He enlisted some local parents whose LGBTQ children were struggling to find a sense of belonging. One was Amanda Shute, whose eighth-grader switched from private to public school and only then discovered that there were many other peers going through experiences similar to hers.
The number of LGBTQ people was a surprise to Shute, too. “It was fantastic,” Shute said of the move to public school. She sees the community center as a place for those students to go after school.
“I didn’t realize how much of the student population was part of that community and what a great need there was for a place like this," she said.
Shute's now the treasurer of Rainbow Bridge. Forbis also enlisted 2018 gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist as a board member, saying that her political and business experience will be an asset to the fledgling group.
Hallquist, a transgender woman, is executive director of the newly established Vermont Community Broadband Board. She said she has mentored LGBTQ youth in rural Vermont in the past, and she used to advise them to move to Burlington in order to find community.
“There’s tremendous support in Chittenden County,” Hallquist said. But she noted that Barre has changed in the last few years.
“There are young families moving in, and a community center like this helps,” she said. “Young people today are looking for welcoming communities.”
Last year, when Barre went through a planning process with the Vermont Council on Rural Development, establishing a community center emerged as one of the city’s top priorities. The others were creating a housing task force and providing better access to the Stevens branch of the Winooski River, which runs through Barre.
“For years, central Vermont has been asking for the Pride Center to have more involvement down here,” said Kell Arbor, a Montpelier resident who is the director of the health and wellness program for the Burlington-based LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. The Pride Center is actively looking for ways to expand its reach in small towns; in April it hired a rural advocacy coordinator based in Windham County.
Arbor and others said residents of Barre, an economically struggling city that doesn’t have a grocery store, have made an effort to show they want to attract diverse residents.
“Barre has more rainbow flags up in its downtown area than any other small town that I have driven though, including Montpelier,” Arbor said.
The center is Forbis’ first foray into a public-facing job, and he’s counting on his team, including the politically savvy Hallquist, to help him navigate any bumps as he brings a new concept to the city of 8,500. He said he hasn't encountered much resistance to the community center, but he knows that he might. Even Burlington's LGBTQ institutions aren't immune to attacks. In April, vandals shattered the front door of the Pride Center of Vermont.
“I’ve been beaten up because I was gay; I’ve been mistreated because I was gay,” Forbis said. “I’m going to rely on the good of what I am doing. And when something negative happens, instead of becoming confrontational, we can find ways to counter it.”
Barre Mayor Jake Hemmerick said he is committed to projects such as the community center.
“Barre City wants to include, not exclude,” he said. “And there are people here ready to be upstanders when the haters come around,” he said.