SF gay men's group welcomes new executive director
by Matthew S. Bajko
A community-based group that helps queer men in San Francisco connect socially has welcomed a new executive director as it marks its 10th anniversary.
In May, well-known gay porn star Michael Brandon stepped into the position with the Community Initiative on a volunteer basis. Earlier this year he had joined the nonprofit's board of directors and was then asked to succeed founding executive director Doug Sebesta.
"Anybody who knows anything about Michael Brandon knows I am very community oriented. I donate my time to a lot of things, anything to further a cause and all that good stuff," Brandon told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent phone interview.
Brandon, whose given name is Michael Phillips, not only is known for his adult film work but for his public struggles with crystal meth use, which garnered headlines in 2008 after he was arrested by San Francisco police. He has been working on a documentary, Born This Way: The Journey of Michael Brandon, that delves into his life struggles.
Last year Brandon took part in a discussion about suicide within the LGBT community that the Community Initiative hosted. He said he agreed to take on the nonprofit's executive director duties because he believes in the core mission, which is to foster a sense of community among queer men by helping them connect offline through various social gatherings.
"Being on the board and listening in on things, it quickly became one of my pets. It is one of my favorite organizations because it is community oriented," said Brandon, 49, who lives in San Francisco.
With the continued growth of electronic ways for guys to meet one another, such as hookup sites like Grindr, and to communicate via social media sites like Twitter, Brandon said there is a parallel need to foster face-to-face interaction between queer men.
"We need to get people off their electronics and out in the community and helping each other," he said.
Sebesta told the B.A.R. that Brandon was his "personal first choice" to succeed him as executive director.
"It is very exciting," he said of the change in leadership.
Ten years ago Sebesta helped launched what was then called the Gay Men's Community Initiative as part of his job with the city's Department of Public Health. One of its most popular programs has been the weekly Wilde Chats, Saturday morning get-togethers for men to discuss various topics of interest.
In 2007 the health department transitioned oversight of the initiative to a community-led board of directors. At that point Sebesta volunteered to serve as executive director in his free time, and in 2008, the group rebranded itself as simply the Community Initiative.
Sebesta, 58, who left DPH on disability roughly six years ago, said he is "ecstatic" to transfer the day-to-day management of the group to Brandon.
"I personally, after I got sick a number of years ago, had to pull back. The board of directors has mostly been running everything," said Sebesta, who serves on the board. "It got to a time where we really needed somebody to be a new leader and bring in a lot of new excitement and freshness, and [Brandon] is doing exactly that."
One of the biggest challenges facing Brandon and the board is financing for the group, which Sebesta noted dried up a number of years ago. The nonprofit last filed a 990 tax return in 2006, according to the website Guidestar, which tracks philanthropic groups.
On its own website the Community Initiative's most recent financial information is from 2007, when it reported total income of $23,541.
"We haven't had any money for a while," said Sebesta. "We were really struggling financially."
One of Brandon's strengths, noted Sebesta, is that he "brings a lot of cachet with him and a lot of experience fundraising for community organizations and worthy causes."
The nonprofit is currently able to operate on $300 a month, said Brandon, which helps cover meeting room expenses and the cost to advertise its events. Funding comes from individual donors and grants from various sources.
"What I would like to do is infuse new energy in to it and bring on new programs and new events," Brandon said.
One of the first new events he has started is a monthly bingo event at OMG, the gay-owned club at 43 6th Street. It takes place from 7 to 10 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month; the next one will be August 12.
The nonprofit is also hosting a town hall meeting July 24 titled "Does PrEP Equal a New Sexual Revolution for Gay Men?" It will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco at 150 Eureka Street in the Castro district.
"The goal of the Community Initiative is to bring people together and get them off their damn cellphones and laptops," said Brandon. "Let's get together and have some fun."
For more information about the Community Initiative, visit http://thecommunityinitiative.org/index.php.