Stepping inside the new Rainbow Bridge Community Center on North Main Street in Barre feels like entering a different world, one filled with color, comfortable spaces, games, art, even a DJ Barry trans cow with a map of the world for spots (painted directly on the wall). The space, designed for LGBTQ+ youths and adults, is obviously needed; a steady stream of people have been stopping in for months hoping it’s open; and it will be, starting Saturday, June 4 at its grand opening celebration.
Founder Gregg “G” Forbis is the driving force behind Rainbow Bridge, including his own initial investment of funding. But it couldn’t happen without a dynamic board of directors, headed by Christine Hallquist, the first openly transgender nominee for governor in Vermont (and the nation), plus a lot of support in the community, Forbis said in an interview last week.
“Everybody thinks I’m opening a LGBTQIA+ community center, I’m not,” Forbis said. “I’m trying to create a bridge between communities.”
What’s in the Center
The center features open hang-out space with elaborate decorations, a 65-inch TV, a piano, local art, places to sit and socialize, as well as a foosball table, an office space for youths to work on resumes and job applications, a shiny red retro-looking refrigerator with a matching microwave where visitors are welcome to snacks (donations requested but not required). Also available is a sound-proofed counseling room for private pro bono one-on-one or group counseling sessions with licensed therapists.
The space is shiny, new and ready for the parties, games, group meetings, charades, and array of other activities for which it’s been carefully curated and designed.
An office space in the back features brand new desks, and a wall of screens showing the elaborate security system in place; every corner of the center is under video surveillance 24/7, Forbis said.
As a gay man in an intolerant world, Forbis doesn’t take security lightly (hence the cameras). In addition to the video surveillance, Forbis said he’s installed measures to ensure the safety of youths who use the community center as well.
“There are certain days for youth, and specific days for adults so we can ensure safe space for the youth,” he said. On the youth days Forbis said center staff and interns will be supervising at all times. “My utmost concern is … it’s specifically designed for youth — and it’s a safe space for them.”
Forbis has a total safety policy, he said. The only thing the center tolerates, he said, is positive acceptance of those who walk in the doors.
“If anybody were to walk in here and be confrontational, I have zero problem physically removing them,’’ he said. “and that includes breaking my nails.” If you saw his nails — long, pointed and meticulously manicured — you’d understand what a big deal that is.
How it started
After 22 years in Barre, Forbis said he and his husband still didn’t know as many people outside their community as they wanted to.
“When my husband and I decided to open the center,” he said, “it was because there was no place to go in Barre. We’d see gay flags on homes, but I don’t know these people.” He said he wanted to create a space where folks in the LGBTQ+ community have their own safe, social space, but also mingle with other communities. “I’m really tired of having no place unless we drive to Burlington.”
“I’m doing this for two reasons,” he said. “One: selfishly so I can meet more people, and two: to to give other LGBTQ+ people in the community a place to be here safely.”
He said he conceived of the idea during the early COVID isolation, and took about a year to gather together a board of directors, funding, and get the space up to snuff.
Forbis has dedicated the center to his late ex-wife, Alicia (Lee) Rodriguez-Milo, who he described as the love of his life and best friend who passed away ten years ago. She embraced his new life when he came out to her almost 30 years ago, he said, and she ended up making his civil union cake for Forbis and his now-husband Jed. Most remarkably, he said, the three of them shared a home and raised their four children together.
“If she was alive right now she would have told me I should have opened a month ago,” Forbis said.
To learn more about the Rainbow Bridge Community Center go to rainbowbridgevt.org.