‘Housing the movement:’ A new center for Portland’s queer community

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Several months have passed since the Equality Community Center purchased a former bank building at 15 Casco St., but the significance of the building to Portland’s LGBTQ+ community is only expected to increase in the coming months.

Once fundraising and renovations are complete, 15 Casco will be the new and permanent home for the ECC and allied organizations in Portland.

Kirsten Griffith
Kirsten Griffith, administrator of the Equality Community Center, outside the organization’s new home at 15 Casco St. in Portland: “This is ours. Nothing can take this from us.” (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

On March 30, the ECC announced that a $1 million gift from an anonymous lead donor and loyal contributors culminated in the purchase of the new community home base.

“If we could dream, what would our wildest dream be for community involvement?” ECC board member Ophelia Hu Kinney said when asked what excites her most about the building.

That dream has developed into a plan for the parking lot next door to have new retail space, and housing for marginalized communities, while the more than 70-year-old building itself will be collaborative space for organizations involved with the ECC.

Partnering with the newly established Queer Craft Maine, the ECC is preparing to hold its first public event at 15 Casco St.: A Queer Maker’s Market on Dec. 18. 

“The more we talked about it, the more it made sense to bring it (the event) inside,” center Administrator Kirsten Griffith said. “This space has so much potential.”

Built as a bank in 1950, 15 Casco St. in Portland is the new home of the Equality Community Center.

The center has yet to be used for anything but private functions, but already means much to members of the ECC and the LGBTQ+ community. 

“This is ours. Nothing can take this from us. No law change takes our name off the deed to this building – and that is something the queer community has never had, something that is ours and can’t be taken away,” Griffith said.

ECC Treasurer Dale McCormick said the new center is a space where the LGBTQ+ community can feel safe and continue the fight for equality. “We like to say the Equality Community Center is housing the movement,” she said.

The ECC is raising money toward a goal of $4 million for renovations to the building. Betsy Smith, a founder of the ECC in 2014, said they’re in the “quiet phase” of fundraising, having one-on-one conversations with potential donors before going fully public with a capital campaign. So far, they’ve raised $2.3 million with the hope that fundraising will be wrapped by December 2022.

Smith has been an LGBTQ+ advocate her entire life, she said, and this project is a culmination of a 30-year political campaign for the community. 

The center’s original home base, just around the corner at 511 Congress St., opened five years ago and has hosted more than 1,500 events. 

The ECC houses Equality Maine; Pride Portland!; the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; PFLAG; MaineTransNet, and Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders.

Edited Oct. 28, 2021, because incorrect information was provided about the date of the Queer Maker’s Market and Ophelia Hu Kinney’s role at the ECC.