A rural farming community is not typically a haven for the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community, but a little bit of outreach goes a long way to build bridges.
An example is the third annual LGBT Imperial Valley Pride celebration held on Main Street in El Centro on Oct. 13. It was a historic moment to be supported by so many vendor exhibitors--49 this year, including the San Diego Pride organization, remarked Rosa Diaz, chief executive officer of the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center that staged the event.
"We still need to educate the community about LGBT rights and promote all the services we provide, especially for our youth," said Diaz. "We're helping with counseling, for those who want to come out safely. And we offer support groups for the transgender and parents and loved ones of LGBT."
One of those young people, Joe Naungayan, 16, was at his third pride event. He recalled he had been active in Spartans United, a sanctioned extracurricular club at Central Union High School for LGBT students.
"It was kind of sad to have to give up Spartans United since I transferred to Desert Oasis," he said. "We were just starting up and deciding whether to spend money on doing some fund raisers. But I volunteered for the first two Pride events. But the good thing about Pride, you can walk around and make friends."
Returning to El Centro for the Pride Event was Fernando Lopez, now executive director of the San Diego Pride Event, and a 1999 graduate of Southwest High
School in El Centro. He conceded he left Imperial Valley because of the stress of daily homophobia he endured as a teen.
"Seeing all our LGBT community feeling safe enough to come out and network like this is great," said Lopez. "Building capacity like this wasn't something we had 20 years ago. But with a more coordinated community we can help young people make connections and feel a part of the whole community."
Demonstrative of the strides made toward LGBT acceptance, the event’s keynote speaker was El Centro Mayor Cheryl Viegas-Walker, who noted for her it all starts and stops with diversity.
"Inclusion matters and just by being here shows in your heart you have compassion, respect and empathy" she said. "Stay loving. Keep a sense of gratitude and let's all be grateful for what we have."
Wrapping up a nearly three-year relationship with the LGBT Resource Center, Brenda Lopez (no relation to Fernando Lopez), the local Pride coordinator, recalled she started as an intern while a college student and stayed with the nonprofit once she learned how important its work is.
"I'm surprised to see this event growing every year and pleased with its progress," said Lopez. "There's been a shift in Imperial Valley. They're more open and accepting now."
This year's theme was, “together with pride and together and vote,” noted Diaz. The 2018 elections are important because a lot of conservatives do not understand the needs of the LGBT community, she stressed.
"We're noticing they could set the entire LGBT movement back," said Diaz. "And some of the rights we had to fight for, like marriage equality, could be reversed."