I arrive a bit late, rushing past a blur of colorfully decorated walls in what was recently a men’s clothing store on Santa Monica Boulevard. I’m here to meet Nir Zilberman, who shuttered his store to found Home, the first self-described privately funded LGBT center in the U.S.
Zilberman is someone you might describe as “a character.” He greets me, not as a stranger, but with the kind of warm, enthusiastic hug reserved for a long-lost friend. He beams, oversized sunglasses perched atop a head of shoulder-length hair, and gesticulates toward the space proudly.
Standing still, I now see the full space and its cheery, dizzying kaleidoscope of vintage Route 66 and Pepsi Cola ads, Keith Haring artwork, rainbow flags and posters of Betty Boop and Yogi Bear. I wondered if maybe he weren’t a little bit crazy.
“A year ago, when the winter Olympics came to Russia, I saw what was happening to the LGBT people there,” he recalls. “I tried to get attention from the city [of West Hollywood] to do something, to show their support for LGBT rights. But, I got zero response and I got really, really upset.
I’m not political. I don’t care if you are Republican or Democrat. I care about what you will do for LGBT people," Zilberman explains. "So we did a rally and got about 39 people to show up, plus the sheriff. It was really emotional. Very beautiful. And, this is when my journey started.”
After six months of renovations, using all of his own money, Zilberman opened Home as a resource and education center for the local LGBT community and its allies, especially the youth. His parents were both Holocaust survivors, which had further fueled a need to find a way to help people.
In the front, three computers and free WiFi stand ready to help anyone who needs them for homework or job searches; toward the back, two barber chairs stand at the ready in case someone who can’t afford a haircut needs one. Beyond that, a lounge area with low lighting, cushioned seating that can be used to host 12-step program meetings or seminars on topics like “Living as Transgender” or “PrEP and Condom Use.”
“I don’t want anything to do with the city as far as money,” states Zilberman. ”I’m not a non-profit organization. I’m privately owned. I can do what I want. No one can tell me what to put in the windows, what not to put in the windows.”
And, then he showed me the window. In it, faces: the mutilated face of a dead man; the melted skin of a woman, still alive, who had been burned; another man who’s head had been crushed from stoning. My stomach lurched. I wanted to look away but didn’t.
“So the window gets a lot of attention because people are really pissed off,” Zilberman tells me. “’Why do you want to promote the hate?’ Well, it doesn’t promote the hate. This is what’s happening in the world. This is how we live.”
And, he’s right. I’ve, of course, read recent reports of men accused of being gay thrown to their deaths from rooftops by ISIS militants and thought how horrible that was. Only now, looking one of these men in the face, did I fully understand how horrible. In fact, another look around, past all the pop culture imagery lining the walls at Home, I started to notice other darker imagery from watershed moments in LGBT history - the Holocaust, gays in the military and the AIDS epidemic.
“People ask me why do you have to talk about AIDS everyday? Well, because some people have to live with AIDS everyday,” he points out.
“We have forgotten our past and the people who came before us to give us the rights we have today. But, we are living in a world where it is a crime to be gay in 78 countries,” he continued. “Look, I’m not rich. But, I’m over it. This is no time to be complacent. And, I want to show that anyone can help change the world.”
The juxtaposition of cartoon characters and graphic depictions of human suffering might be jarring. But, maybe an over-the-top approach is what is needed to wake people up, to wake me up. In the 1980s people thought Act Up was crazy. And, perhaps they were but, agree or disagree with their tactics, they helped put a voice to AIDS and move the conversation forward. So too, Zilberman may be crazy for opening Home and spending all that money, but he’s far from insane.
“This is a place where people are going to listen because I will be screaming. I will fight for the right of LGBT or any other person because we are all the same.”
His biggest hope for Home and what it might accomplish? “I want to find the next Harvey Milk,” Zilberman states matter-of-factly. “I had wished they were in my generation but I don’t think they are, so I’m looking for him or her in the next.”
And, I think, as he hugs me good-bye: I bet you’ll find them too.
Home is located at 7990 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood. For more information, visit Facebook.com/WeHoHome.