NEW BRUNSWICK — Bringing to life an idea five years in the making, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School on Thursday opened The PROUD Gender Center of New Jersey, the state's first facility dedicated to providing full, complete, and specific services to the transgender community, services largely unmet to this point.

Jackie Baras, LGBT health navigator at RWJUH and the director of the LGBT Program, is herself a transgender woman. She said she and other hospital employees recognized and discussed the needs of New Jersey's LGBTQ population, not just physical, but emotional and psychological as well.

"We would like to be the destination for the entire trans community, and for the LGBT, that this is the location where they will feel safe, they will feel comfortable, they will feel welcome," Baras said. "Even within the community, there have been victims, for a very long, long time, of discrimination, of bullying, of being ostracized, being isolated."

The acronym PROUD in the new location's name stands for Promoting Respect, Outreach, Understanding, and Dignity. Baras said the center will work to eliminate some of that ostracization which has even come from healthcare providers in the past.

Those providers, by contrast, have been part of ongoing conversations spearheaded by RWJUH, in support groups and advisory panels, drawing on the experiences of transgender New Jerseyans.

Baras hopes that PROUD's central address within the state (near the downtown New Brunswick train station) and the hospital's extensive history of surgeries will be signs to these residents that they deserve respect, and are not doomed to some unfortunately common outcomes including unemployment, homelessness, and suicide.

"You can be who you want to be," Baras said. "There's no doubt on that. And we will respect you for your choices, we will respect you for your difference, and you will be treated like anybody else."

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual and telehealth appointments are available.

Baras said she is asked, from time to time, why she continues to fight for equality for the LGBT community. The answer, even from someone who is part of that group, is not so simple.

"Even a hundred years from now, we can never be equal, whether you're Asian, you're Hispanic, you're Black or you're Caucasian, we can never be equal," she said. "But I will fight for humanity."

For more, go to the RWJUH website, or call 1-833-PROUD-NJ or 908-442-5609.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.