Original Story on Fort Myers - Florida Weekly
Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber founders Arlene Goldberg and Susan Christiano.
| COURTESY PHOTO
The Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce
’s goal is basic: To make life more harmonious for the gay community, to lessen the chance of encountering sour notes when visiting businesses and knowing where they’re welcome.
Chamber president Susan Christiano knows about guesswork and uncertainty when patronizing businesses.
“You don’t have to be afraid of that anymore,”
Ms. Christiano said, sitting in The Gathering Place, a Fort Myers gay-owned restaurant.
Arlene Goldberg sat across from Ms. Christiano. Both women are Realtors and have worked to start the new chamber. Its mission is helping the LGBTQ community. Those letters stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer and/ or questioning.
The chamber held its inaugural event on April 23 and is up to about 40 members and its Facebook page had 271 likes as of May 2. It offers services to five counties — Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry.
| OLLIE MACK GENTRY PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY PHOTO
Founders and members Sue Christiano
, Tyla Vaccarro, Arlene Goldberg, Ron Penn
, Scott Cornish
and Ollie Gentry
. Before the chamber could become reality the organizers needed to secure a 501(c)(6) from the IRS
, which is required of any chamber that isn’t organized to profit its leaders.
Ms. Goldberg and Ms. Christiano studied other gay chambers and sought out advice from the leaders of those chambers. Is there a need for such a chamber?
“Well, for one thing there is no source of information, nowhere where a member of the LGBT community and a onestop place you and your family can go and can get the information that they need,” Ms. Christiano said.
Ms. Christiano said the chamber fills needs similar to other chambers.
“The one question that people do ask: Why do you need a chamber?” Ms. Christiano said. “Well, why does the Hispanic community need a chamber? Why do you need the Christian chamber? Because it’s groups getting together with the same common cause.”
The first member was Fort Myers attorney Mary Beth Fletcher, who joined as soon as she heard it existed. She knows from experience that many in the LGBTQ community fear the reception they sometimes receive.
“I would get calls from people who were afraid they’d be judged,” Ms. Fletcher said.
The chamber serves as a directory, letting people know where they won’t be judged.
“This is exactly what we need,” Ms. Fletcher said.
She pointed out a detail that Ms. Goldberg and Ms. Christiano also mentioned.
“You don’t have to be LGBT to be a member,” Ms. Fletcher said.
One of the early chamber members is Naples physician Dr. Clint Potter, who is a member of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association and provides services to LGBTQ patients. He understands the rationale behind the chamber — it helps relieve anxiety for LGBTQ people seeking a doctor.
“To know there’s a gay-friendly place I can go and not be scared,” Dr. Potter said.
Dr. Potter’s website (NaplesAIM.com) notes that his practice is an “affirming LGBT model.”
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation was one of the first members. Its CFO, Ron Penn, is the chamber’s treasurer. Mr. Penn said he has resided in Lee County for 12 years.
“I still don’t know all the gay businesses,” Mr. Penn said.
Through the chamber, he hopes to learn about more.
Fort Myers resident Annette Trossbach is the producing artistic director of The Laboratory Theater. Her theater was an early chamber member.
She believes it’s important to send a message to potential LGBTQ visitors and residents considering Southwest Florida for vacation or relocation.
“To know they’re welcome,” Ms. Trossbach said.
She added that is something that unites customers of any business.
“We like to spend our dollars where we are embraced as human beings,” Ms. Trossbach said.
That also motivated the chamber’s founders. They know the questions folks might have.
“What are the resources?” Ms. Christiano said. “Will I be able to find a doctor? … I want to adopt. Who would I talk to?”
She envisions the Harmony Chamber as a “one-stop source” to answer such questions. But more than that.
“It’s more than a directory,” Ms. Christiano said. “We are going to be instrumental in raising awareness.”
Ms. Goldberg echoes her friend and real estate partner at RE/MAX with the message they want LGBTQ people to hear about Southwest Florida.
“They need to know that we are a welcoming community and we have resources,” Ms. Goldberg.
She has seen the area evolve since moving here in 1989 from Flushing, N.Y. Ms. Goldberg eventually became one of the best-known people in the gay community, especially after she fought to secure recognition as heir to her late wife, Carol Goldwasser, who died in 2014.
Ms. Goldberg and Ms. Goldwasser met when they were 13 and living in the Bronx in the Castle Hill Projects.
“We knew there was something special,” Ms. Goldberg said. “But we didn’t know what it was.”
Ms. Goldberg joined in a lawsuit that struck down Florida’s same-sex marriage ban.
Her work assisting the gay community made her well known. But it did something else, as well.
“I think all of that helped me get over the grieving process,” Ms. Goldberg said.
It was a lot to get over.
“We were together for 47 years,” Ms. Goldberg said.
They married in New York in 2011, when such unions were not yet legal in Florida.
Now, six years later, the chamber is up and running.
“The timing is right and we want everybody to feel a part of this,” Ms. Goldberg said. “It’s not about us. It’s about the community. It’s about them feeling like they have a real resource to go to, that they don’t have to feel uncomfortable calling or asking us or telling us anything because we’re there.”
For now, the chamber exists only online but that will change. Organizers are thinking about a physical home, likely in downtown Fort Myers.
“There is a prospective area we’re looking at,” Ms. Goldberg said.
She expects a move into a place could happen in 2018.
Ms. Christiano said most members in Lee County but hopes to add members in the counties.
Chamber officials recently attended a Charlotte County Pride to spread the word.
What is the ultimate goal for the Harmony Chamber?
“When we won’t need a chamber,” Ms. Goldberg said.
For now, the Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce is needed.