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Polestar continues LGBTQ+ support after pandemic shutdown, building loss

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Isabel Nissley
/
Interlochen Public Radio
Under the picnic shelter at Grace MacDonald Park in Traverse City, Jocelyn Link (top right, yellow shirt) leads the relaunch meeting of Polestar’s Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Support Group. The event attracted people from Frankfort to Leelanau County.

For Polestar LGBT Center in Traverse City, the coronavirus pandemic was so challenging that the nonprofit had to close down.
But this month, Polestar is thinking outside-the-box to restart some of its support groups for queer people.

On July 13, Polestar, a northern Michigan LGBTQ+ community center, held its first in-person event since the pandemic began. Like for many organizations, COVID-19 changed the way Polestar functioned.

Today, instead of meeting at a designated center like the organization would pre-pandemic, the relaunch meeting of Polestar’s Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Support Group was held outside, at Grace MacDonald Park.

Founded in 2018, the nonprofit sought to serve the LGBTQ+ populations in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska and Antrim counties. Polestar’s founders saw a need for queer community, education and support in northern Michigan.

“If you build it, they will come,” said Jocelyn Link, chairperson of Polestar's Board of Directors. “There’s definitely a demand for what’s happening here, but without some kind of organization behind everything, people don't have the motivation to do it themselves.”

Before the pandemic, queer people knew that the Polestar Community Center had an office on Woodmere Avenue in Traverse City. It was a gray, two story building that was filled with couches and pride flags. The organization hosted support groups, offered drop-in hours, and even organized a queer prom, which was one of its largest fundraisers.

People like Alex Collick, a transgender teen who lives in Traverse City, found friends and confidence in his identity at Polestar. But, when the pandemic began and the support center shut down, Collick struggled.

“My brain went into a panic thing of like ‘maybe you’re not trans, maybe you’re lying to yourself,’ because that just kind of happens and I didn’t have anywhere to go to talk about it, I didn't really have people to talk to about it,” Collick said.

During the pandemic, Polestar’s programming ceased, and funds dwindled. The organization lost its office building. Now, as Polestar slowly restarts its community programming, it is holding events in public spaces and outdoors.

About 10 people showed up to the July 13 support group meeting. Participants mingled and discussed nearly everything– from recent vacations to the struggles of trying to legally change one's name.

But, among that relatively mundane chatter of the Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Support Group, something else was happening too. Surrounded by others like themselves, these attendees found community and acceptance.

“Having a place like this, made me realize that I’m not strange, there’s not anything wrong with me,” Collick said. “That’s the biggest part about having a center, is to make you more comfortable with yourself.”

Polestar’s July 13 support group meeting was also the first one that was held outdoors. Although this gathering went smoothly, Jocelyn Link had to cancel an earlier event, due to inclement weather. That could continue to be just one of the challenges of holding meetings without having a physical building.

Link also had to consider what locations would be safe and accessible for attendees.

“It’s going to be challenging,” Link said. “Without the physical center, we have to find spots that are safe for our community members to meet at and also that our community members are going to want to meet in. Sometimes you can find one, and not the other, and vice-versa.”

In the meantime, Polestar plans on slowly re-establishing its presence in the five-county area.

Link will continue to lead the Trans and Gender Nonconforming Support Group. And, she also hopes to restart the LGBTeens group, a support program for queer teenagers in the region.

Once Polestar’s programming is occurring more frequently, Link sees the potential for fundraising to occur, and eventually, for a new office center.

“The future is going to be bright, no matter what,” Link said. “We’re coming back from the pandemic damaged, down, but not out.”