Les Geller and his husband, Allan Geller (formerly Feinstein), stood outside the tiny space on Cabarrus Street in Raleigh that was the first LGBT Center of Raleigh in 2010. Even though he was one of the founders, he had to wait in line to get inside – just like many other enthusiastic early supporters of the Center.
“Oh my gosh, look at that!” he exclaimed to Allan as they drove up. Remembering that first First Friday event, he says, “We didn’t know if anyone would come, but there they were … waiting to come in. It was a precursor of what was to come.”
Les, who uses he/him pronouns, served on the founding Board of the LGBT Center of Raleigh and was its treasurer for those early years. He was the designer of the spaces on Cabarrus, Hillsborough, and Harrington Streets.
And there was another time that Les was surprised with the enthusiastic turnout. “My partner in crime, Lorraine Johnson and I had rented a hotel space in RTP for the first Gay and Gray dance,” he remembers. “We didn’t know how we would be received. We had a little side room next to the atrium with a buffet table and music set up. Slowly but surely, people came and came and filled up the little room. It got so crowded that in order to do the dancing, we brought the music out into the atrium, and no one else in the hotel blinked an eye. So, the first social event we did was a huge success.”
Tommy Goldsmith from the News & Observer had interviewed Les about what Gay and Gray was doing and published an article that told about the fledgling group and about the dance. “People had no idea that we existed until that article came out, and that was what brought them to our first dance.”
Joe Wheeler, the current coordinator for SAGE Raleigh, says, “Les Geller is the heart of SAGE in Raleigh. He joined the LGBT Center Board to make sure seniors had a voice, and he envisioned a strong senior organization even before it became possible for the Center to affiliate with SAGE USA.”
“Les is a wonderful example of truly stepping up,” remembers Lorraine Johnson, co-founder of Gay and Gray with Les and 2016 recipient of the Center’s Distinguished Service Award. “By nature, he would rather stay in the background. But his passion for LGBTQ equality has pushed him into the limelight. The hardest thing for him to do is interact with the media, in print and on camera. I vividly remember when we were together at the downtown vigil the night of the Orlando shootings. James Miller, the Executive Director of the Center, asked us to be interviewed by the television crews because no one else felt safe doing it. We were both in tears and just as scared as the rest of the folks there, but we looked at each other for a long moment, pulled ourselves together, and said OK. He spoke to all of the television viewers passionately and eloquently regarding our Community’s collective pain and fear, beautifully expressing the feelings we all shared that night. He is truly one of the bravest men I have ever met.”
Now, Les focuses his energy toward affordable housing for LGBTQ seniors in an environment where they can feel comfortable, where it’s safe to be out, and where they won’t have to worry about being discriminated against by management or by neighbors. He’s been working on it for quite a while. “I thought it was never gonna happen,” he says, “but all of a sudden a developer appeared who had all the same mission and goals we had. We have a long way to go, but our developer does have an option on a piece of property. We’re still working on all the permits, zoning, and tax credits. We should know more by August 2020.”
“But our movement is in jeopardy,” Les says. “We have to be really careful that they don’t chip away at our rights. Depending on where you are in this country, you’re either in good shape or in terrible shape. We live in a bubble of acceptance in the Triangle, but we have to make sure that they don’t take anything away. We need to listen to our advocacy partners like Equality NC and HRC to know when it would be time to go into the streets to protest. We’re mostly okay now, but the other shoe might fall,” he counsels.
“On the other hand,” he says, “I’m optimistic about us in the Triangle. I think that our Center will find a permanent home soon, and we will get our senior housing. We must do what we can here on a local level and let the national organizations deal with nationwide issues.”
“We have seen so many people who didn’t have any idea where to go or what to do in our Community. The Center has become a beacon of light for them. We need even more of that.”
Les had come out of a 28-year relationship, had no job, no income, and had lost all his friends. Somehow, he learned that a group of people were getting together to start an LGBT center in Raleigh. And, somehow, Les knew there was a need for senior involvement in such a project. “That’s why I showed up at that first meeting,” he says.
And we are grateful that he did. Over many years, Les has demonstrated distinguished service to our community, and we are proud to recognize him as the Distinguished Service Award Recipient for 2019. Please join Les and all his friends at the Fall Achievement Benefit (FAB) at CAM Raleigh on Saturday, October 5th. Tickets to the event are on sale now.