When the group first started, it was so private and quiet they didn’t have a sign on the door.
Times have changed since 1972 for PERSAD Center. “The ability to be more out and to be integrated, as both an LGBTQ organization and as people, has been an enormous amount of progress,” says Betty Hill, executive director.
Beyond the sign that is now on their door is an impressive facility. The new PERSAD Center opened last year in Lawrenceville, a much larger facility that allows them to do more. “We couldn’t do larger activities like training and education and now we’ve built a true community hub,” Hill says. “In the first six months we were here, 68 different groups used our space, which is amazing and happened much faster than we expected. It’s been rocking!”
PERSAD is the nation’s second oldest licensed counseling center serving the LGBTQ community. The founders didn’t want a name that would “out” people, like “Gay Counseling Center,” Hill says, “so they mushed together the two words ‘personal adjustment.’” At the time, and for years, PERSAD was known just for counseling, but the center has greatly expanded since.
“We’re cradle-to-grave and full-service, and we follow what the community needs,” Hill says. Now they offer youth mentoring programs, after-school programs, education and programs for prevention of HIV, substance abuse, and suicide prevention.
In Southwestern Pennsylvania, an area with a large senior population, serving seniors in the LGBTQ community is an important focus of PERSAD Center. In October, they hosted leaders from 27 affiliates at the National Conference of Services & Advocacy For LGBT Elders (SAGE), a group that addresses issues faced by those aged 55+.
Adoption and foster care is a new program for PERSAD Center. “We got into this area for a couple of reasons,” Hill says. “There have been kids who were removed from their homes and placed in a foster care home. Then, while in the foster home, they ‘come out’ and the family says, ‘Oh, no—not in my house!’ So these kids experience double rejection.”
PERSAD works with Allegheny County and specializes in finding homes that are “safe and affirming” for these youth. “In addition, we have lots of same-sex couples who would like to have families and this is one way they can be parents. So we are also recruiting same-sex couples to be foster parents, not just to gay kids but to any kid,” Hill says.
Counseling is still at the heart of what PERSAD Center provides. Early on, most counseling was to individuals who came to the organization privately and needed help adjusting. Now, with youth coming out earlier, and with legalized marriage and same-sex couples having children, Hill says PERSAD has moved in the direction of providing more family counseling and support. “We work with families who might be struggling with the idea that their child or other family member might be gay or transgender, and we try to help them understand and have the conversations that help heal family relationships,” she says.
Although there’s been tremendous progress in the rights and acceptance of the LGBTQ community, there’s more that’s needed, Hill says, including a Pennsylvania statewide non-discrimination policy. “We’re working with Equality PA, supporting their work to try to get nondiscrimination legislation passed. It should have been done decades ago,” Hill says. “I’ll tell people that a person can be fired in Pennsylvania for being gay and people just don’t believe it. It also affects public accommodations and discrimination in housing, which we have a lot of problems with locally.”
Schools present another area where more progress is needed. “I’m so disappointed that schools are still the hardest place for us to go to deliver education programs and services, which, we think, is because they’re afraid of school boards,” says Hill who adds that while most schools have anti-bullying programs, bullying against LGBTQ is often not addressed. “If the youth feels that their parents or church feels it is okay to be negative towards an LGBTQ person, then they don’t see it as bullying.”
Enabling the nonprofit PERSAD Center to continue their work is the reason for “Art for Change,” an art auction (one of NEXT’s top 11 events for May) that is the organization’s largest annual fundraiser. The 28th annual event will take place Monday, May 2, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. at the Wyndham Grand Downtown Pittsburgh and supports PERSAD’s Free Care Fund, ensuring services for those who can’t afford to pay. “It’s a great, fun evening that we’ve been doing for a long time, yet remains really fresh because we have such a wonderful relationship with the arts community,” Hill says. “When you get all these incredible artists donating their works so we can serve the community—that’s magic.”