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School's In for the Out Crowd

Gay and Lesbian Center offers an innovative education program. The classes are now offered at the Village complex.

June 28, 1998|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The debate: Why is leadership of the gay movement, once almost exclusively the domain of men, increasingly being taken over by women?

Is it one result of the ravages of AIDS among males? Or does it reflect advances by the women's movement? Or does the change stem from gay feminists' insistence that they be included not just in one community or the other, but in both?

These ideas flew fast and furiously at a recent class, "Uncommon Heroes: The Need for Gay and Lesbian Role Models," sponsored by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. There was no consensus.

The class was remarkable both for the heat with which differing points of view were expressed and because the debate took place as part of what may be the first gay adult education program offered by one of the network of 100 Gay and Lesbian Centers nationwide.

No, Learning Curve classes don't carry academic credit. And, ranging from one to six weeks, they are more of a gay Learning Annex than a gay university, says program coordinator Kirk Feral.

Since the September start-up, nearly 100 classes have been offered, at fees ranging from $8 to $99, on subjects ranging from "Public Speaking Without Fear" to "Circle of Life: An Intergenerational Encounter."

The program has focused on exploring the diversity of the gay community--the white West Hollywood male, the East Los Angeles Latina, the African American, the Asian American--Feral said.

On June 21, Learning Curve--which has been meeting in available spaces in Hollywood and West Hollywood--became more than classes joined together only by a catalog. On that date it moved into the Gay and Lesbian Center's renovated two-story, 33,000-square-foot former sound studio on McCadden Place in Hollywood, near the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland avenues.

The complex, called the Village, houses an art gallery, a bookstore, a computer learning center, low-rent office space for gay artists, and educational programs and offices for Outfest, which sponsors the annual gay film festival--as well as a 200-seat theater with state-of-the-art sound equipment. It was designed as an adult education campus within a gay business and artistic center. With its mix of students and nonstudents, youth and seniors who live in the neighborhood, it represents a departure from the traditional remedial social and medical services that are offered at the center's main facility on Schrader Avenue in Hollywood.

Center executive director Lorri Jean said, "The Learning Curve and the Village represent an exponential leap. We're creating a holistic environment in which to meet gay friends and straight allies." The hope is that, by teaching AIDS prevention and self-esteem, there will be less need for the primary center services, Jean added.

Already, the Learning Curve has ignited emotional and intellectual sparks, such as those at the "Uncommon Heroes" class, taught by Phillip Sherman of West Palm Beach, Fla., recipient of the American Library Assn.'s 1995 nonfiction award for his book, "Uncommon Heroes".

Sherman, 39, recalled participating in a gay protest more than a decade ago--all the while fearing how his parents might react to seeing his face on the 6 o'clock news, a common dilemma at the time. By contrast, he said, today's activists think nothing of having their photos taken, thereby giving names and faces to the rights dialogue.

Moreover, he said, as gays assimilate into the mainstream, they become de facto role models for society at large, their sexual orientation only a footnote to their overall identity. He observed that entertainers k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge and Elton John have become mainstream, rather than just gay, role models.

The challenge to the gay movement, he said, is to recognize the changes and to ally itself with other minorities and with straight friends such as artist Jane Jaquette, 49.

Jaquette told her Learning Curve classmates of growing up in a dysfunctional family--only to discover family values from a gay uncle and his partner. "I saw a love and contentment in them, a giving and forgiveness which I didn't see in my own parents."

For Sherman, the rewards of teaching here involve more than just money. "This is about building pride and community," he said.

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