Polk County’s first LGBTQ center promises ‘safe space’ in Lakeland

LAKELAND — The message truly shouts from a wall in the reception area of ​​the Rose Dynasty Center: “Loved, Accepted and Wanted! – Mom Ashley Rose.”

Jason DeShazo, the Lakeland man who created the matronly drag character, describes that sentiment as the law — for the acronym LAW — of the LGBTQ center.

“I’ve longed for a building since I was a teenager,” said DeShazo, 45. “I’ve longed for a safe space.”

After a lengthy search, DeShazo and his nonprofit, Rose Dynasty Foundation, have determined the location of what he says will be the first center in Polk County designed to provide medical services and emotional support to local LGBTQ residents. The Rose Dynasty Center, at 1253 W. Memorial Blvd., will have a grand opening Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. and will begin offering services on June 11.

DeShazo, a gay man who grew up in Central Florida, noted that LGBTQ residents often drive to Orlando or Tampa for tests, medical care, counseling and other services, and can’t find local providers who make them feel like they be accepted. He applauds the idea of ​​finally providing a ‘one-stop shop’ for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning youth and adults.

“Everyone needs a place where they can feel safe,” DeShazo said. “And as a queer person growing up in Florida, this was something that I needed. And I knew other people who needed it. Polk County has very large representation. We see them every year at (Polk) Pride. And why not have a place where they can get mental health care and other community services?”

He said news of the facility has created “a lot of excitement” among the local LGBTQ population.

The center will be open Tuesday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, with support groups meeting in the evenings and events taking place at the weekend. The grand opening will feature local artists, and DeShazo said representatives from groups like Planned Parenthood and the Red Tent Initiative will be in attendance.

Rose Dynasty Center is affiliated with CenterLink, a national community of LGBTQ centers founded in 1994. The nation’s first such community centers opened in 1971 in Los Angeles and Albany, New York, according to a history on the CenterLink website.

Looking for the right place

Rose Dynasty Foundation, the nonprofit DeShazo founded in 2017, organizes drag shows, brunches and other fundraising events. He said the organization has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to various charities, including the LGBTQ-oriented Fitzlane Project and Dru Project and others such as Project PUP, Faith Equine Rescue and food banks.

DeShazo started looking in earnest for a location about a year and a half ago. He had hoped to find a spot closer to downtown Lakeland, but he said a combination of market forces and perceived bias scuttled some potential deals.

The center occupies approximately 2,300 square feet at the rear of a one-story building on the site of a truck rental dealership. Fundraising and sponsorships will help cover costs, and the center will also generate revenue from renting space, DeShazo said.

Pineapple Healthcare, a nonprofit that will provide medical services from the center, is the financial sponsor, DeShazo said.

Befitting its name, the Rose Dynasty Center welcomes guests with a pair of planters at the entrance featuring pink-hued roses. Inside the door, a visitor meets the designated greeter – or “diva extraordinaire” – a Pomeranian terrier named Eevee.

The reception area, which resembles a doctor’s office waiting room, features brightly colored chairs that DeShazo said were donated by Amazon. DeShazo’s husband, Scottie DeShazo, sat behind a reception on a recent afternoon, next to Hannah Mathre, 22; youth director of the center.

Scottie, who provides the makeup and styling for Jason’s drag performances, is vice president of the center’s board of directors and a healthcare advocate for Pineapple. Aidan Rosario, a virtual student at the University of Florida, serves as social media manager.

The Rose Dynasty Foundation has been organizing drag shows and other entertainment at various locations in Lakeland for years. Jason DeShazo said he plans to host as many events as possible at the new center, although his group will maintain a relationship with ARTifact Studios in downtown Lakeland for performances that require more space.

DeShazo, in full makeup and a quilt-like dress after a photo shoot with an Orlando publication, recently led a tour of the center.

A small, connecting space will become a library, and DeShazo plans to stock it with books removed from Florida schools because of their LGBTQ content. The partially filled shelves held a few of those titles: “Being Jazz” by Jazz Jennings; “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson and “The Art of Being Normal,” by Lisa Williamson.

Another small room is set up as the ‘green room’ or performance preparation area, complete with four mirrors with make-up lights.

An information room is designed as a classroom, with five rows of desks and a video screen on the front wall. DeShazo hopes to teach classes on topics such as business and finance. He also expects some secular homeschool groups to use the space.

A small, warmly lit therapy room is decorated with a rainbow-colored display that reads, “You are loved, accepted and wanted,” and a small banner that reads, “You can cry here.”

The center has two medical rooms, one of which is an examination room equipped with basic medical equipment. Rows of unused blood vials indicated that fluids for laboratory tests would be drawn into the chamber.

Pineapple Healthcare emerged in Orlando in 2020, opening a clinic to provide what president and CEO Ethan Suarez calls “culturally competent” primary care for the LGBTQ population. The partnership with Rose Dynasty Center is the first expansion to Polk County, Suarez said.

Providing limited medical care

Pineapple initially plans to have a primary care physician or physician assistant at the center one day a week, offering primary care services in both English and Spanish, Suarez said. Telehealth appointments will also be available, and Pineapple hopes to expand its clinical services at the Lakeland location later.

Services offered include the provision of PrEP and pre-exposure prophylaxis, a medication that reduces the risk of HIV infection.

The nonprofit accepts most major insurance plans, but not Medicare and Medicaid, and charges a $40 co-pay per visit for those without insurance. Pineapple also provides services to those who cannot pay, Suarez said.

At this time, Pineapple will not provide gender-affirming care to transgender patients. The Florida Legislature last year passed a law banning minors from receiving gender-affirming care, a measure that also stripped nurses’ authority to prescribe hormones to transgender adults.

“If they need primary care, we are a safe place,” Suarez said. “But we cannot provide gender-affirming care until that law is resolved.”

Several organizations have filed a lawsuit against the measure, known as SB 254.

HIV and STD testing without an appointment is offered from Tuesday to Friday. In Florida, anyone 13 and older can test without parental consent, although minors need parental consent for treatment, Suarez said.

Books in schools The Polk school district is asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit over its handling of the problems

Heather Stambaugh, a licensed mental health counselor, will rent space at the Rose Dynasty Center to provide services, along with Black Swan Counseling. Stambaugh, who is licensed to work with children 13 and older, said she has specialized in treating LGBTQ clients since opening a solo practice in Lakeland in 2015.

“Florida in general has become a really unsafe place politically for the community to exist, and that has had a significant impact on people’s mental health and only shaken their sense of safety and existence in the state,” Stambaugh said. “So to know that they have the local resources where they can find community, connection and support and resources is really helpful in helping reduce the stress of being LGBTQ, when many community members are fleeing or moving . Florida.”

The Rose Dynasty Center hosts support group meetings, DeShazo said, including one for LGBTQ residents 55 and older. Stambaugh had created a network of transgender support groups that met in person but shifted to online meetings during the COVID pandemic. She said she would like to restart community gatherings at the Rose Dynasty Center.

Stambaugh said the facility will give Lakeland what LGBTQ populations find in larger cities.

“I think the fact that they can get into a kind of one-stop shop where their medical needs, their mental health needs, their social needs, their connection needs can be met, that will play an important role in helping people feel supported,” said Stambaugh.

Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on X @garywhite13.