In June of 2017, Oakland was the only major city in California without an LGBTQ Community Center. The absence was baffling when one considers how well-established the community is in The Town, and how statistically distinctly different Oakland’s issues are from those found in San Francisco.
“Many people always look to San Francisco but we’re two completely different cities with completely different issues,” said Joe Hawkins, a founder of PRIDE Oakland. “In San Francisco, they’ve had dramatic reduction, almost 50 percent in HIV infections. In Oakland, there’s still an epidemic. It’s it’s like night and day. In 1995, Alameda County declared a state of emergency for HIV, and it still stands.”
So in July of 2017, Hawkins and Jeff Meyers rented a single office in the co-working space located at 3207 Lakeshore Avenue to serve as a launch pad for Oakland’s first inclusive LGBTQ center. But just three months into their lease, they learned that the operator of the space was being evicted. Having just formed their board, with assistance from it and individual donors, the center was able to take over the entire space in January 2018. To cover the rent, they now rent out space in the facility to other LGBTQ non-profits and queer private practice therapists.
“Just two years ago we were thinking we were about to be evicted, now we are the sub landlords,” Hawkins said. “It’s kind of surreal.”
As the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center approaches its second anniversary on September 7, it has raised more than $500,000 to keep the doors open and provide support for the community. More than 8,000 people have visited, and the center’s programming has grown to meet their needs. It now hosts more than 30 support groups; community-building activities for youth; provides space for queer artists and writers to share their work; and has created a drop-in café, food pantry, lending library.
“We’re celebrating our anniversary and things are going well,” Hawkins said. “This location is phenomenal and expensive. Our rent here is over $10,000 a month and we have tenants, mostly therapists, and that small amount of profit has been a great help. By raising money through individual donors, getting a foundation grant and another from the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth, we now have our first full-time youth coordinator. Our first full-time employee ever.”
Board Vice President Dawn Edwards also saw the need for an inclusive center for the Oakland community, and sees a cohesion taking place that was both fast and unexpected.
“Everybody felt the vacuum of not having a center, now that they do, the whole community comes in and are intentionally making it what they need it to be,” Edwards said. “We all benefit from that. Joe and Jeff allow that space for the community to really make it their own community center, which you don’t see too often. Most centers are ‘top-down’ organizations, but Joe was very intentional when we first opened about forming committees to do needs assessments to directly address and respond to our community.”
The support groups range from Bi/Pansexual, life after 40 groups for queer men and lesbians, Queer Trans People of Color parents support, and trans men of color. There also is an element of addressing social and systemic issues that do not directly effect the QTPOC community, but need to be considered and addressed through the process of creating a safe space.
“We have a white ally-ship group because, when we first opened, the first issue we tackled was racism and the LGBTQ community,” Hawkins said. “We called it Racism Under the Rainbow, and out of that we created affinity groups so that white people who feel like they’re dealing with issues of privilege and racism can learn from one another how not to perpetuate that in our community.”
White supremacy isn’t often addressed by LGBTQ centers, but Hawkins believes it should be on the agenda now more than ever.
“When we first opened it was right as Trump was coming into office, and hate crimes had jumped in the county by about 40 percent or so,” Hawkins said. “Most of the centers, the six here in the Bay Area, and the 30 across the state, saw an uptick in violence. The San Francisco LGBT center was vandalized during that period. The Rainbow Center in Concord was vandalized during that period. The Pacific Center in Berkeley had their flags set on fire. We had just opened, and we had two incidents. First, our sign was vandalized, then some people snuck in into our bathrooms and spray painted, ‘Kill gays,’ ‘Go to hell,’ and ‘You’re going to hell’ all over the walls. Now have to make sure that we have cameras everywhere, and security at the door. What’s interesting about that is we don’t have a lot of money. We’re new. The cameras and lights are extra expenses, but we must have them. How are we going a make sure that we’re safe? We need to be extra cautious because we know there are a lot of crazy people out there who don’t like LGBTQ people. We’re just trying to protect ourselves.”
But even under these restrictive conditions, the center’s work has already made a profound impact that will resonate for years to come.
“We’ve had our youth drop-in nights since March, and we’ve had a dedicated group of youth that have come faithfully,” Edwards said. “It takes some time to build that respect and that comfortability for them to feel vulnerable and share part of themselves. Recently one of our youth just opened up and shared something that was really personal and emotional about something that they had been experiencing at school, but it felt like Shorty, the youth coordinator, and myself were close enough and comfortable enough, and safe enough, which is really key, that they could actually share that with us and feel a safe haven, some kind words, some advice, or just that shoulder to cry on. Up until then, they’d been very surface, fun and laughter, but in that moment, that person felt safe enough to go a little deeper. I felt like we really provided an impact, and that’s what it’s all about to me.”
The conditions for the LGBTQ community in Oakland, and around the country, are often dire, and as the current administration attempts to force queer and trans people back in the closet, already marginalized people face an even greater threat. There have been thirteen Black Trans women murdered in 2019, an alarming statistic with an alarming uptick, and the founders of The Oakland LGBTQ Center understand that they are providing a needed service for the overlooked and undercounted.
“I took my volunteers on a walk through San Francisco’s LGBTQ neighborhoods,” Hawkins said. “Then we walked all the way to The Lyric Youth Center in the Castro and there were so many LGBTQ services, and we don’t have that right now. But one thing that has been beautiful is that under one roof we’ve all been able to provide support to one another while addressing Oakland’s ethnic diversity. We’re all working together to help one another create this space. Just the fact that it has existed for two years is a promising start.”