Jersey Shore gay organization faces eviction from ‘God’s square mile’
NEPTUNE TOWNSHIP — A gay and lesbian community center is being kicked out of its building in Ocean Grove — a religious community that is also home to a large number of gay and lesbian business owners and residents.
The QSpot has been a tenant at the Jersey Shore Arts Center since 2012. But the organization may have to find a new home because the nonprofit arts center has declined to renew their lease past December. That decision has prompted the organization to question the Arts Center's motives.
Herb Herbst, president of the Jersey Shore Arts Center, says "people are making a mountain out of this."
Herbst said the decision not to renew the least is because while QSpot's stated mission to foster "the health, well-being and pride of NJ’s LGBT community" is "perfectly all right," it's not about the arts.
"It’s not theater, not drama, not music," he said Thursday in an interview with New Jersey 101.5. “I feel sorry for the organization, but we’ve given them ample time to find a new location. This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement because they couldn’t get anything in Asbury Park.”
The Arts Center is housed in the 120-year-old former Neptune High School. Almost all the other tenants, such as a dance school and a violin academy, are primarily focused on the arts.
Another tenant — a church — also will not have its lease renewed because its mission is not arts related, Herbst said.
“We are not trying to turn this into a debate,” he said. “This is not a mean spitting contest. It’s a business transaction.”
QSpot Executive Director John Mikytuck, however, says the decision "seems highly suspect."
QSpot is the creator and producer of the state's only LGBT film festival — QFest — and produces arts programming, which has included live performances by Emmy-winning actor Leslie Jordan, "America’s Got Talent" contestant Julia Scotti, and director Del Shores.
Ocean Grove was founded as a religious camp meeting site in the 19th century. While still part of Neptune Township, the land is owned by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which bills itself as "God's square mile at the Jersey Shore." The community also has a thriving gay population.
In 2007, Methodist leaders clashed with the LGBT community after a lesbian couple was denied permission to hold a civil union ceremony on the Camp Meeting's Boardwalk Pavilion. A judge later ruled that the organization had discriminated against the couple. The Boardwalk Pavilion is no longer offered as a wedding venue.
“Claiming that QSpot doesn’t provide arts and education programming as the reason, when clearly we do, raises questions about the motivations of the JSAC,” said Mikytuck
Mikytuck said QSpot was "assured last September that our lease was under no threat and would be renewed."
"We invested hundreds of volunteer hours and thousands of community dollars fixing up our unit because we were assured we would be able to stay in it for a long time."
Some friction, however, developed in June following the massacre at the Orlando gay nightclub Pulse.
Mikytuck said the Arts Center sent QSpot a letter six days after the tragedy asking that the organization remove a rainbow flag hanging at the agency’s entrance.
Mikytuck said the demand was "not only insensitive, it raises serious concerns about the attitudes of the Jersey Shore Arts Center’s leadership towards the LGBT community."
Herbst, 90, who in an interview Thursday referred to gays and lesbians as "homosexuals," said Thursday that the Orlando attack was "a terrible thing that happened." But the Arts Center asked the group to remove the flag from a fire escape and added that QSpot could have flown the rainbow flag on the building's flag pole if they had asked.
"They held a candlelight service in the parking lot. There’s nothing wrong with that. But they never asked permission, never checked base with us, never invited us. Isn’t that sort of strange for a tenant to do that?" Herbst said.
On Friday, Mikytuck said the flag was on an awning above QSpot's entrance, not a fire escape. And that the director of the Arts Center was notified about the vigil by email.
"The event was held 24 hours after the tragedy and everyone was invited. More importantly, as far as I know, is that no one representing the JSAC was at the event," he said.
Julia Scotti, a comedian who often discusses her experience as a transgendered woman and who performed at QSpot to sold-out crowds several times for the past two summers, says QSpot "is a valuable organization because the LGBT community doesn't have anything like this in the area."
"QSpot is very much about the arts, so I don't understand the logic to that," she said Thursday before going on the air with New Jersey 101.5 host Steve Trevelise. She was promoting a "town meeting" QSpot is having 4 p.m. Sept. 24 at the center to discuss the lease issue.
Scotti said QSpot volunteers turned the Arts Center basement into a "welcoming space."
"It's just wrong to do this," she said.
Herbst said it's "not unusual for a landlord and a tenant to part company."
“We’ve been trying to part on very friendly terms.”
Editor's note: This story was updated Friday to add further response from the QSpot executive director.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.