By Debby Mayabb
The Dennis R. Neill Equality Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma matters because it is the permanent home of Oklahomans for Equality – the oldest and largest organization serving the LGBT community of Oklahoma, as well as the four-state region of the Heartland.
The Equality Center is housed in a 1920's structure originally built as the business office of an oil refinery. The refinery lasted only eight months, and in 1921, the Independent Torpedo Factory purchased the building to use for its labs and business offices. Prior to 1930, torpedoes were manufactured in Tulsa as blasting mechanisms for drilling oil wells. The walls of the defunct oil refinery were reinforced so that they could withstand the blast of nitroglycerin explosions.
Today, it's our Equality Center.
In 1980, Dennis R. Neill founded a group by the name of Tulsa Oklahomans for Human Rights. In the 1990's, the organization opened the very first LGBT community center in Oklahoma. After 12 years of rented space and nervous landlords who would not allow the organization to display rainbow flags or signage, a capital campaign was launched to raise the funds necessary to create a permanent home for our LGBT community. Seven years of fundraising lead to the purchase of 621 E. 4th Street, and after 7,000 hours of volunteer-led renovations, the doors were opened.
The Robert S. Cisar memorial lobby maintains the original terrazzo floors, a 1920’s operational office dumbwaiter, and the original accounting partitions that lead to the still-functional vault that was installed by the Schwab Safe Company when the building first opened nine decades ago. Today, the lobby houses a reception area, a Pride gift shop and the staff offices of Oklahomans for Equality. It opens up into the Sue Welch Great Hall, which is named after the chair of the building's capital campaign. This unique space functions as the "living room" of the Equality Center, and it is where panels of the internationally-famous AIDS Quilt (once displayed on the National Mall in Washington, DC) are on permanent display.
The Great Hall leads into the renovated elevator lobby, where the doors of the original freight elevator are on display. In this space, you'll also find community conference rooms and our art gallery, which offers a unique venue for regional artists through monthly showcases.
The Equality Center’s event room is the largest of our renovated spaces, and is home to holiday balls, trade shows, education and employment fairs, theatrical productions, and concerts. Because of its size, it's also where floats are built and decorated for our annual Pride parade.
On the second level of the building, you'll find the Veteran’s Billiard Lobby. This area was dedicated on November 8, 2008, to honor the many LGBT veterans of the United States. The Lambda Bowling League raised the funds to purchase and donate the pool table in honor of Sergeant Harold Joseph Hooker, a highly-decorated veteran who served in the Korean War. Close by, the Nancy and Joe McDonald Rainbow Library has over 10,000 books, including the largest children's section for LGBT families in the region. At any given time, over 5,000 books are checked out by Center members, as well as by high school and college student groups. The library also houses its own legal clinic, where attorneys aid members of our community with their legal issues on a pro bono basis.
Interested in some yoga or strength training? The second floor also features our Wellness Center, which is used for a variety of health and wellness-related endeavors. In the common area, the David Bohnett Cyber Center was created as a place where Center visitors could access the Internet. David Bohnett actually donates computers to LGBT community centers nationwide, and Oklahomans for Equality was the first center to be granted this wonderful resource. Here, members of our community check their e-mail, do homework, and fill out job applications.
The waiting area outside the Wellness Center and the David Bohnett Cyber Center was created by physician Dr. Clio Robertson in loving memory of his son, Ryan, who at the young age of 22 committed suicide. This area serves as a place of serenity and contemplation. Nearby, the Neill/Southard History Project Room archives every piece of news that has been generated by Tulsa Oklahomans for Human Rights and Oklahomans for Equality, creating a fascinating look at LGBT life in our state.
Sharing the same floor, the Center’s medical services room offers HIV testing five days a week. It is here that the Tulsa County Health Department has monthly health fairs focusing on issues such as diabetes screening, cholesterol testing, breast examines, hepatitis testing, and weight loss instructions. Nearby, a classroom area serves as the Center's venue for lectures on LGBT issues and workshops on coming out.
For these reasons (and so many more), the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center is a place that truly matters.
Debby Mayabb is the office manager for Oklahomans for Equality, which, like so many things, is proud to call the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center home.
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