Bellingham Queer Collective opens its doors - Salish Current
June 3, 2024
Bellingham Queer Collective opens its doors
Margaret Bikman

Bellingham Queer Collective members paused for a group photo at the new Q Center in downtown Bellingham during a ribbon-cutting ceremony May 17. (Courtesy Alexis Robinson)

June 3, 2024
Bellingham Queer Collective opens its doors
Margaret Bikman

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Group organizes to respond to social isolation and difficulty in making connections among queer community.

Michelle Harmeier is the founder and board president of the Bellingham Queer Collective (BQC), formed in 2022. The organization began in response to the challenges of social isolation and difficulty in connecting in person as we were moving out of the pandemic. 

“We provide opportunities for our queer (LGBTQIA2S+) community, 18 years and older, to gather and engage with others in downtown Bellingham and beyond,” Harmeier said.

Most recently BQC has established a brick-and-mortar location to expand its services. I attended the soft opening of the BQC Community Center at 1415 Commercial Street on May 17, where I received a warm welcome and a tour of the center. Formerly a dentist’s office, it has several rooms where people can meet privately, read (there’s a great lending library) and talk with staff. 

“The center provides a critical, inclusive third space — that is, a community space outside of home and work — for our 18+ intergenerational LGBTQ+ community members to gather downtown,” Harmeier said.

Currently, the BQC is an all-volunteer organization and 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The volunteers contribute their time and skills to programs such as inclusive workshops, classes, a co-working space with other organizations and the resource center. 

Harmeier cited “unmet needs of our community outside of social connection, including housing and food insecurity, harassment and discrimination, employment challenges and lack of access to medical treatment. Our goal is to build up our volunteer team so we can have the center open for community use from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days per week,” they said.

Spanning generations

The BQC has teamed up with Northwest Youth Services to provide to provide more inclusive support to vulnerable young people.

Sara Glebe is Queer Youth Services (QYS) manager at Northwest Youth Services, whose mission is to support youth and young adults experiencing homelessness and housing instability. 

Northwest Youth Services will operate its QYS program serving ages 13 to 24, while the BQC will invite all those 18 and older to its space.  

While the QYS program is funded through state and local grants, the BQC Center will rely on community funding. This combined facility, which will be called the Q Center, will be the first LGBTQ+ community center between Seattle and Canada. Glebe said their services are important because “we make an effort to center homeless or housing insecure trans and queer people in a city, county, state, and country that continually criminalizes homelessness rather than seriously funding alternatives.

“It is particularly important to invest in expanding housing resources and support in Bellingham and Whatcom County,” she said.

The new Q Center located on Commercial Street in Bellingham is the first LGBTQ+ resource and support center between Seattle and Canada.  (Courtesy Bellingham Queer Collective)

The Q Center plans to have drop-in hours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays for trans and queer youth ages 13 to 24, as well as a queer youth knitting and crocheting group on the third Thursday of the month from 5 to 7 p.m.

Connecting the community

It’s been documented that trans and queer youth experience higher rates of depression, mental health crises and suicidality than do their peers. They also experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate due to being kicked out of families and homes because of who they are and how they identify and express themselves. Glebe says that Queer Youth Services is not just a resource for training, service navigation, and community building; it is suicide prevention, outreach, intervention and youth mental health support. 

Harmeier said they love connecting people and helping them find their community. “As we grow as an organization and recruit more volunteers, we will expand our reach through programming and peer-to-peer services.” They’ve had dozens of conversations with queer community members over the past two years, learning that many people have identified as queer for years but found no way to find friends and be in community until they found the BQC.

“Even couples with children who lived in Bellingham for years before the pandemic shared they felt isolated and now have a network of friends,” they said. For example, during a Rainbow Elder discussion group with more than 20 members at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center, one person shared that after being an active member for more than 10 years they still thought they were the only gay person at the center. The BQC staff organizes group outings to places like the Pickford Film Center, Mount Baker Theatre, New Prospect Theater and local restaurants.

“During our monthly intergenerational potlucks with more than 80 attendees who range in age from 18 to 90 years old, I love watching the storytelling and community building between the generations,” Harmeier said. The potlucks formed as a collaboration with BQC, WWU LGBTQ+ Western and PFLAG Whatcom, at the request of young adults in need of elder role models and mentors. 

The center will host an open house from 3 to 8 p.m. Friday, June 7, during Bellingham’s Downtown Partnership’s First Friday Art Walk, for self-guided tours and participation in a “Founding Photo” at 6 p.m. on the “Rainbow Corner,” across from Chocolate Necessities and Mount Baker Theatre. 

BQC is also holding its first fundraising campaign. “The BQC needs to raise $30,000 a year to cover the operational costs of running a brick and mortar center,” said Harmeier. 

Donations will go to paying the rent and funds for interior painting, technology equipment, security systems, bookcases, kitchen improvements and furniture. In addition to many group social events, the BQC has planned two cultivation events: the second annual Bellingham Erotic Ball on Oct. 19 at the Hotel Leo, and the second annual Hearts Desire Dance in February.

Harmeier says that in Bellingham, a city of about 100,000 people, there may be between 10 and 30% — or 10,000 to 30,000 people — who identify as LGBTQ+. They point out that more than 20,000 people attended the 2023 Pride IN Bellingham Parade, and BQC members now belong to a larger, diverse, intergenerational queer community with more than 1,600 people in its Facebook group and hundreds of followers of the public Facebook page and Instagram accounts.

“Though we are known to be a welcoming and progressive city, people report being isolated, rejected by family, experiencing housing and job insecurity and discrimination,” said Harmeier.

“We are a new nonprofit organization and need to establish ourselves in the community over the next few years. We will continue this work as long as our community supports us with participation and donations for the community center. In the future, we would like to explore ways to support our elder LGBTQ+ community in senior housing that is affordable and built on a co-living model of mutual support and community.”

— By Margaret Bikman

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