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Amanda Arbour: The protectorExecutive Director, LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania

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Amanda Arbour is the executive director of the LGBT Center of Central PA, based in Midtown Harrisburg.
Amanda Arbour is the executive director of the LGBT Center of Central PA, based in Midtown Harrisburg. - (Photo / )

In 2017, issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers and consumers came sharply into focus.

That September, Amanda Arbour became the third executive director of the Harrisburg-based LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania.

A Philadelphia native, Arbour came to the Harrisburg area to attend Messiah College.

Since graduating in 2009, she has taken on a variety of roles for Messiah, the state’s Department of Aging and the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, addressing the effects of ageism and racism on Central Pennsylvanians while deepening her acumen for policy, advocacy and training.

Arbour recognizes that a broad response to the needs of the LGBT Center’s community is critical. The LGBT Center serves a region in which only the cities of Lancaster, York and Harrisburg, as well as the borough of Carlisle, have ordinances protecting LGBT employees of private companies from discrimination.

There are no county-level protections in Central Pennsylvania for LGBT employees of private companies, nor are there state-level protections.

However Gov. Tom Wolf has taken measures to extend protections from discrimination to LGBT state employees, but they have not influenced passage of the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, legislation that would protect privately employed LGBT Pennsylvanians. The bill has received bipartisan support, as well as support from regional business leaders.

Arbour spoke to the Central Penn Business Journal about what challenges the LGBT Center is positioned to take on and what supporting LGBT Central Pennsylvanians looks like in 2018.

CPBJ: Tell me a little bit about your employment background and what informed you to take on a leadership role at the LGBT Center?

Arbour: I’ve worked across the higher education, state government and nonprofit fields, working in a variety of different ways to seek to advance social change. My passion for social justice is what drives me, and having opportunities to work toward that in different ways — whether that was providing training for students when they were doing their service learning as part of my appointment with Messiah College, whether that was advocating for older Pennsylvanians through my work with the Department of Aging, or, most recently, at the YWCA, managing and overseeing programs focused on eliminating racism as their racial justice program coordinator — all of those experiences are what I bring to my role now at the LGBT center. As a gay woman, the Center has been very important to me personally in my own coming-out process, being able to come here as a community member and feel welcomed and supported: It is really one of the first places where I feel like I can be all of who I am and not have to leave my queer identity at the door. I had gotten involved in the center through that capacity. It was really exciting to then have the opportunity to step into a leadership role and build upon the great work that the center has been doing.

CPBJ: Why is intersectionality important in directing a space for LGBT people?

Arbour: Intersectionality is critical to the work that we do, to any social justice work. In the context here at the LGBT Center, for me, it’s a recognition that we have so many different types of queer people. We have this LGBTQ-plus umbrella, but there’s so many identities and experiences that fall under that and the experiences of, for example, a trans woman of color is very different from my experiences as a cis* gay woman. Recognizing that we have queer immigrants in our community who also have a very different experience, that trans individuals have very different experiences — it’s important to me, in leading this organization and in creating the spaces that we have here to be very cognizant of that so that we are very intentionally becoming a space where all queer individuals feel welcome, feel like it is their space, too. Because the reality is that we have an all-white staff. Almost all of our volunteers and interns are white. The space at the Center is very white. It’s something we’re very aware of. One of the first things I did was put the “More Color, More Pride” flag in our front window, in place of the regular pride flag — that’s the one that has the black and brown stripes, that’s come out of Philly. It’s something that our staff and board feel very strongly about, being very visible, and the fact that we recognize that queer people of color do not always feel welcome here and have been systemically marginalized in the broader LGBTQ movement. That’s an important symbolic shift for us that has been followed by tangible actions: We started a queer people of color group that meets regularly at the Center, as a space for queer people of color to come together and support one another and recognize their unique experience. I’ve been doing a lot of one-on-ones with different queer people of color, leaders and individuals within the community, to get their input. I work with the board and staff to determine: What are additional, practical, strategic steps that we could take to make our space more inclusive?

CPBJ: What challenges is the LGBT Center facing at the beginning of 2018?

Arbour: I think the challenge that all LGBTQ, or all social justice organizations are facing is the political climate. We’ve seen repeated attacks on our transgender community at the federal and state levels. Most recently there was the CHIP bill that intentionally excluded transgender children from receiving transgender-related health services under that plan**. It’s been like that at the legislative level. The attitudes and assumptions that people have and feel more emboldened now because of this larger context — that is one of the biggest challenges that we are facing, that we have to continue to speak out, we have to continue to advocate, particularly for and with those that are most marginalized within our communities, and we have to stand together in the face of all of this and continue to do the work that we’re doing. Because our primary mission at the Center is not advocacy, it’s very much connected. Even the fact that we are having queer spaces, and we have those spaces here in the Center multiple times each week, that is revolutionary. That is political in a context where our very existence is being challenged. Continuing to speak out when these type of legislative things come up is important. Continuing to do the work that we’re doing every day is equally important because that is resistance, too.

CPBJ: Have you observed effects of Pennsylvania’s inconsistent anti-discrimination protections on the community?

Arbour: Absolutely. Whenever I’m doing training, I always tell people it is legal in Pennsylvania to discriminate (within the context of) employment, public accommodations, housing — you can get fired, you can be denied housing, you can be denied entry into a restaurant or a store just because of your sexual orientation and your gender identity. A lot of people don’t realize that. But it’s a very real experience for a lot of us, particularly our trans community. I’ve heard stories, even in the first couple weeks that I started. Someone was fired for their job when they were outed as trans; someone was afraid to lose housing. It’s a very common occurrence that people either are discriminated against or have to very carefully structure their lives to protect against potential discrimination. It’s exhausting. Even though I, personally, have not had that experience, I feel every day that constant tension of navigating: In what spaces is it safe for me to be out? That’s something that’s much more heightened among others within our community.

CPBJ: Does the LGBT Center have any big goals for the next few years that you’re looking forward to working toward and achieving?

Arbour: Absolutely. I had talked a bit about the importance of intersectionality, and that’s one of my big goals: Moving the Center toward a place of having all of our spaces being inclusive and better, being more responsive to and representative of our queer people of color, queer immigrants, queer people with disabilities, queer people within our community who are at these different intersections of oppression. That is really one of my big goals that we’re continually moving toward: becoming a more inclusive space. I also want to work to increase visibility of the Center. A lot of people don’t know that we’re here. We’re kind of tucked away, here in midtown, next to the Midtown Scholar. I really want to find ways to use both traditional and nontraditional public relations strategies to get the word out that we are here and this is a place people can come, so that every queer kid who’s getting bullied in school knows that the Center is here and knows that our Common Roads program exists for them as a safe place for them to come. And, like any small nonprofit, working to increase our revenue stream so we can not only support current programming but future programming. We’re working on revamping some of our programming for 2018 to focus on being responsive to the community and focusing on the social, educational and cultural aspects highlighted in our mission. There will be programming changes coming in 2018, so we’re looking forward to that and providing more things that the community can benefit from.

CPBJ: The LGBT Center recently sponsored a reading at the Midtown Scholar bookstore by fiction writer Carmen Maria Machado. Has the Center been involved in organizing a lot of cultural events like that? Or is that a new initiative?

Arbour: The Midtown Scholar had reached out to us. They’d planned her coming and the event, and wanted to partner with us. That was a great opportunity for us to join in an event that was already occurring, that was very relevant to our work. We’re definitely always looking for partnerships like that with other groups and organizations that are planning things that we can help to support. We don’t have to do everything on our own and we shouldn’t. The more partnering we can do, the better we can amplify our messages collectively with other organizations.

CPBJ: Does the LGBT Center work with businesses to provide training or seminars?

Arbour: We do that all the time. We provide a variety of different training and educational opportunities — LGBTQ 101, what does it look like to have LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace or in social services or in education. We do a lot of work going out to school districts and training their teachers and administrators as well as social service agencies and businesses. We also have trans-specific training, so in addition to broadly talking about inclusion for LGBTQ people, there’s a particular interest in inclusion for trans folks and helping people to understand — there’s a lot of questions around trans identities and concerns about bathrooms and things like that. That’s definitely a training we provide quite frequently to help to address some of those questions and concerns and really give people a frame of reference for understanding: What does it mean to be transgender? What does it look like to support transgender people?

*-Someone whose gender identity aligns with the gender they were identified as at birth.

**-The state Senate passed a bill to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program with the inclusion of transgender medical care intact.

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