The Spahr Center’s Namesake Reflects on LGBTQ+ Progress in the Bay Area

Jane Spahr (middle) at a 1993 march on Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Jane Spahr)

For San Francisco’s Rev. Dr. Jane “Janie” Spahr, being forced to resign as the executive director of the Oakland Council of Presbyterian Churches in the 1970s for coming out as a lesbian may have been one of the best things that ever happened to her. A new liberated life awaited.

“It was wonderful; it was incredible to be there,” Spahr says about next joining the staff of the Metropolitan Community Church, which served gay and lesbian people in the Castro — but a darkness was looming. “For just a moment, it was so fabulous to be queer and all these wonderful services we had, and then HIV hit.”

As Spahr and others began the sad ritual of burying their friends, the need for some sort of community center became obvious and a small group turned their eyes to Marin. “We said ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could offer support to our folks?’ It was a scary time for people coming out,” she says, adding that she had the support of her former husband and his wife and her own children, who helped her accept who she was. “I’ve lost jobs three times over being lesbian, so it’s OK. I’d rather have my integrity.”

Spahr went around to several churches in Marin, as everybody knew her, but nobody would give her meeting space — until she visited Westminster Presbyterian in Tiburon and they said, Which room would you like? “And so what happened is, because a lot of our people had to come in through the door of a church, they saw that there were supportive people in faith communities. And this one was really supportive,” Spahr says. Soon there were youth groups, lesbian groups, gay groups, bisexual groups, even groups for lesbian and gay parents and then the spouses of those parents. The need for support and community was overwhelming, Spahr says.

During that time, she held a meeting at the College of Marin, thinking maybe only a handful would come, but instead 75 showed up from as far north as Mendocino and as far south as the city. “And when they saw one another, when these LGBTQ youth saw one another, it was just unbelievable,” she says. “It was incredible.”

In 2016 the center Spahr started and had served as executive director of for more than 10 years, then called the Spectrum Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns, merged with the Marin AIDS Project to become the Spahr Center, a moniker that came as a great honor to its namesake. “Never in my life did I think I’d get to see my granddaughter and my little grandson cutting the ribbon with me and that we would have had the chance to have a center and have a safe place for our people to be,” she says.

About the center, now based in Corte Madera, Spahr adds, “It became a community. And now they’ve got grandparents’ groups, and parents’ groups and youth groups about kids that are nonbinary and genderqueer, and whatever it is. I just say we add more letters, because that’s the wonder, that’s the great thing.”