Wednesday, May 22, 2024

From the Magazine: A Safe Space

Julie Seaver grew up in what she describes as a “very rural, strong Catholic community” in the town of Ilion, in upstate New York: meetings at the Elks Club, Friday night fish fries at the VFW, Wednesday night spaghetti dinners. Her high school graduated a class of 40.

“I always felt different when I was younger; I just didn’t have any role models at the time,” she recalls. Gay people were all but invisible until Seaver’s family moved to Fort Lauderdale in the mid-1980s, and suddenly she was one high schooler in a class of 3,500. Her world opened up. And Compass Community Center was with her every step of the way.

“I first came into Compass in the early 2000s to attend the coming-out support group,” she says. “Then I saw that there was a job posting in 2006. I applied for it, and again in 2007, and I guess you could say I came in, and then I came out. And there’s no place I’d rather be than with this team.”

Seaver has been an integral part of Compass ever since, graduating from development associate to capital campaign manager to chief development officer, chief financial officer and, since 2018, its executive director and CEO. She spoke to Boca magazine from the “Great Hall” of Compass’s two-story building in downtown Lake Worth Beach, a gathering space with artwork and inspirational quotes on the walls. Panels project beautiful blue skies from a drop ceiling, suggesting the illusion of a skylight. The atmosphere is serene, welcoming and, for some visitors, surprising.

“I always laugh—when people first come into the building, they’re expecting drag queens and disco balls,” Seaver says. “We do have those at our events like Palm Beach Pride, but we don’t have those every day. This is a professional organization. We have been providing life-saving services to the LGBTQ community and those impacted by HIV and AIDS for 35 years.”

Compass began in 1988 as the Stop AIDS Project of South Florida, Inc. The organization received its first building, then known as the Gay & Lesbian Community Center, in 1992. In 2007, thanks to a $3 million capital campaign, the nonprofit moved into its current space, a former restaurant/lounge on North Dixie Highway, as part of a public-private partnership with the City of Lake Worth Beach.

Today, it ranks among the largest LGBTQ centers in the country, with more than 25,000 visitors patronizing the facility for its health clinic, its cyber center, its town halls and workshops, its mental health services and support groups, its annual Stonewall Ball gala and Equality Prom, and its extensive lending library—where, Seaver says, “we have all of the banned books.”

Seaver acknowledges that for many of Compass’ visitors, the past few years have been an increasingly perilous period for LGBTQ people both in Florida and across the nation. “A lot of folks are scared right now,” she says. “There are over 400 anti-LGBTQ bills and laws coming down from all of our state capitals. The original ‘Don’t Say Gay’ legislation, that went through June 1 of 2022, affected our school districts from K through third grade, and we knew that that was going to be just the start. I don’t have a list of all the House bills that are being watched right now that prevent us from using the bathrooms of our gender identity, and removing gender-affirming care from trans youth as well as trans adults. Bans on gay reparative therapy have been removed.

“Years ago, I would have said, I have executive privilege, and I’m white. But now, being a part of a marginalized population, I am seeing not just the lasting effects COVID has had on our communities but the trauma that our own staff is currently [experiencing]. It’s starting to take its toll. We just got a resignation letter from a trans staff member who does not feel safe in the state of Florida.”

Under Seaver’s leadership, Compass has found ways to resist. At the time of this writing, drag performers were still invited to Palm Beach Pride, despite the passage of an anti-drag bill in the state legislature that has led to the cancelation or modification of other pride events in the state. “That was our choice,” Seaver says. “It’s made me angry, because drag queens and the trans community, they were the first ones to throw the first fist against the status quo at the Stonewall riots. And our local drag queens, the Melissa St. Johns and the Velvet Lenores, have been fundraising for the LGBTQ community, the youth population, the HIV community, for years. So drag is a part of our history. … And I think it’s very dangerous to pre-comply with a bill that has not been penned into a law” [as of this writing].

Despite speaking in often-dire terms about the state of affairs for the minority populations Compass serves, Seaver holds out hope. Her organization, after all, is a beacon of positivity—an oasis in what can feel like a desert of exclusion.

“The voices of the few extremists are so loud that it does feel like we are on the losing end of things, but I really don’t believe that that’s true,” she says. “People don’t like when there is mass genocide of our rights. Whether they’re afraid to speak up and be an upstander versus a bystander remains to be seen. I think it might get a little bit worse before it gets better. I do have hope that this legislation and this rhetoric is temporary. Because we are not temporary.”

This article is from the September/October 2023 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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