A visit to the LGBT centre in Birmingham proved to be an insightful and aspirational event thanks to David Viney who kindly gave us a tour of the facilities, and a description of how spaces are provided and made appropriate for all - with sensitivity to confidentiality and visibility needs.
We entered the building through the main door into a entrance space that had information pinned up and leaflets available. David later explained that the location was chosen from a number of potential sites because of its location just on the edge of Birmingham's existing de facto gay village on the Southside by Chinatown. This allowed it to have a geographic relationship with existing LGBT establishments, but also have a frontage that was not buried in a culture of bars and clubs but instead had open access to the rest of the city. The location on Holloway Circus was ideal in that it was accessible but not busily pedestrian, this meant that people who are less comfortable with being seen could visit the centre fairly surreptitiously while the centre itself still maintained a positively visible street presence. David expressed the importance of the visibility of the centre, that it was unlike in the 60s when LGBT organisations had to remain largely clandestine. We agreed that in the 21st century the best way a centre could serve the community is to be seen and accessible and have a good outward relationship. Although a second entrance exists, visitors have had no problem with using the main entrance so far.
While the establishment as a whole does not hide itself from the city, it is still important to control levels of privacy in the spaces within the building. Upon entering one can immediately see that one of the ways the Birmingham LGBT has addressed this is through its windows and varying ease of access. From the entrance space, a visitor has the choice of entering the café through an open door to the left, or to turn right into a reception space (with a buzzer system out of hours). The windows in the café are partially obscured by decorative decals but are otherwise transparent, while the windows in the reception space are translucent but frosted up to just above head height. Contrastingly the windows of the consultation room next to the reception space are completely frosted; here you can see the façade treatment directly representing the sensitivity of the activities that take place at specific points behind.
Even internally the views are more open in the public café half of the entrance level and more controlled in the more private consultation/reception half of the same floor - with walls and corners obscuring the view from the entrance space.
The cafe that makes up half of the entrance level frontage is open to all and hosts a variety of events throughout the week. In a cross-community collaboration with the local council, the kitchen is staffed by a team of people with learning disabilities. The cafe provides a comfortable and open environment where people could congregate or relax alone without feeling judged or socially pressured.
We also discussed how the LGBT centre was set up and the role of the council and other organisations. With the centre being completed at the beginning of this year, its story is especially pertinent to our project in Sheffield. While the start conditions and context of the gay scene in Sheffield are rather different to those of Birmingham, there are important parallels we can draw in terms of the considerations necessary to make in developing an LGBT space at several scales.
The discussion we had with David at the centre also brought as down to earth on some of the practical issues such as maintaining security in funding and generally ensuring the sustainability of the centre and its relevance within the wider communities and city as a whole; one of the specifically important pieces of advice that we took away from the meeting was that the key to a successful and useful centre is to provide only services that are missing or enhance those that already exist and never compete with any services already available to the community.
These discussions, together with the types of spaces and staffing/community strategies that we were introduced to will feed into our research to make our proposals for Sheffield as informed as possible.