L.A.’s Queer Justice Leaders—Past, Present and Future

by Joe Rihn on February 23, 2017

Plaque outside the Black Cat Tavern.It was the kind of warm and sunny winter’s day that makes L.A. feel truly special. But for the donor activists and foundation partners attending Liberty Hill’s Queer Youth Power van tour, the day was about celebrating another side of Los Angeles: its powerful, and often pioneering, legacy as a launch pad for LGBTQ liberation. Beginning and ending at Silver Lake’s Black Cat Tavern—the site of America’s first uprising against police harassment of gays and lesbians—the tour commemorated the 50th anniversary of the pre-Stonewall action, and combined LGBTQ history with talks from the leaders of today’s movement for queer justice.

During the first leg of the tour, Liberty Hill President/CEO Shane Goldsmith, opened the day’s conversation with an overview of issues facing LGBTQ youth while the bus headed north from the Black Cat toward Griffith Park. For Shane, the tour provided an opportunity to connect philanthropists with organizers in action. Touching on Liberty Hill’s Queer Youth Justice Leadership program, and the impressive organizing coming from young queer people, Shane brought the concerns of directly- impacted youth to the forefront. The most pressing issues? Education, housing and mental health.

Flyer from a 1970 Griffith Park gay-in

Leading the historical portion of the tour was Dr. Marie Cartier, a professor of Queer and Gender Studies at Cal State University Northridge. At the first stop near Griffith Park’s merry-go-round, Dr. Cartier explained the history of “gay-ins,” which took place there in the early 1970s. Inspired by hippy gatherings of the era, gay-ins pushed for liberation by bringing LGBTQ folks out of the shadows and into public space. According to Dr. Cartier, “Recognizing another person as gay in public was a big deal.”

At a shady picnic area nearby, Audrey Kuo of API Equality – L.A. connected that historical context to the needs of today’s frontline organizers. Much of API Equality – L.A.’s work has focused on the intersection of Asian/Pacific Islander and LGBTQ communities. Whether it’s helping queer youth find family acceptance, or establishing an LGBTQ presence at Asian American cultural events, the organization is about building bridges between multiple identities. But now the fight requires more teeth than ever. It’s why Audrey and their colleagues are ramping up leadership development—a crucial next step in building the resistance needed now, and over the next four years. Part of this effort is to maximize the effectiveness of people recently inspired to join protests. In the often-unpredictable world of organized demonstrations, API Equality helps teach new activists how to be safe, and be heard.

The Metropolitan Community Church

Next stop: Hollywood’s Metropolitan Community Church home of the groundbreaking religious group that began a movement of LGBTQ-affirming Christianity from a Huntington Park living room in 1968. As the bus rolled through the busy streets of Hollywood, Ari Gutierrez and Eddie Martinez of Latino Equality Alliance talked about working for LGBTQ justice on the east side.

The two leaders tied their organization to the story of the Metropolitan Community Church by explaining how Latino Equality Alliance develops “programs that are for the youth—and addressing faith issues for their families." When young people are caught between gender identity and a religious tradition that sometimes conflicts, the organization is ready to help. One way the group provides support is through Mi Centro, an LGBTQ community center in Boyle Heights. According to Eddie, people often ask why East L.A. needs LGBTQ spaces when they already exist in West Hollywood and other parts of the city. Eddie’s response was simple but powerful: "We want to be who we are, where we are. It’s wonderful to go to those gatherings and safe spaces, but everywhere should be safe."

Ari Gutierrez of Latino Equality AllianceSoon we passed through one of the most recognizable parts of Hollywood Blvd., with the Walk of Fame on either side. What makes this street famous aside from its showbiz associations? It’s the site where in 1970 one of the first ever Pride parades took place. It’s also not far from our next stop at Triangle Square Apartments, a complex of affordable housing units for LGBTQ seniors. At Triangle Square the tour received a preview screening of “L.A. A Queer History,” a forthcoming documentary that goes in depth on the historical figures and events of LGBTQ L.A. Newly inspired by stories of the queer L.A. activists who paved the way, the audience of philanthropists and funders dove into a discussion on how to give to the movement, and how to make it count.

The bus wound back through the hilly streets of Silver Lake for a final stop at the Black Cat Tavern to learn more about the site’s history, and to hear from Rhina Ramos and Cathy Chu, who are staff members with Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network (GSAN), along with Qveen Robinson, who is a young organizer there. Topics included victories in “school climate” campaigns (gender-neutral restrooms), intersectional issues (GSAN’s Day for Racial Justice), and how young people are stepping up to be movement leaders.

GSAN organizers at the Black Cat Tavern

As the tour came to an end, one major takeaway was how much is on the line for these young people in a turbulent political time. Another was how powerful young activists can be with the resources and support to fight back.

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