.Pride, Purpose, Passion: Joe Hawkins celebrates 5 years of Oakland’s LGBTQ Center with a star-studded Pride Fest

In August of 2019, EBX sat down with Oakland LGBTQ Center CEO Joe Hawkins and vice president Dawn Edwards, to celebrate two years of a place that almost didn’t happen. Hawkins recalled: 

“About six years ago, co-founder and current board president Jeff Myers and I participated in the Hands Around The Lake event after Trump won the election. It was a very sad day, and we knew that things were about to hit the fan. For years, there has been talk about starting a LGBTQ community center, and nothing happened. I’m also one of the co-founders of Oakland Pride, and although I’m no longer with that organization, I wrote in the mission statement that it would one day raise money for a center. But after I left, people stopped talking about opening the center.

“After that, I was walking down the street—Jeff and I live in Adam’s Point over here—and we’ve lived here forever. This area used to be a Black gay mecca back in the ’80s and ’90s. Jeff hollered from his balcony, and he said, ‘Joe, we need to open the center.’ He said that he’d gone to the San Francisco LGBTQ Center gala, and asked them if they could help us, and they said they could open up a satellite over here. I said, ‘Hell no, there can be no SF satellite in Oakland. Do you want to open a community center here in Oakland?’ That’s how it started.”

At first, Myers believed that San Francisco’s center had something to offer, but when asked why Hawkins rejected the offer, he said:

“We’re not San Francisco. What people don’t know about LGBTQ community centers in California, which has the most of any state, is that they’re typically founded, run and led by white folks. This center is one of the few founded and led by Black people, for all people. You see things through a different lens when you are a Black person, and how you navigate service provision. How are you going to provide services? And we see it in everything we do here. When we first opened, we only had one office. This was a coworking space. It was called Co-Munity, and we were renting an office here, only to find out three months in that they were being evicted.

“So this was after our grand opening in September. T-Mobile literally gave me the number to the owner, and I was shocked. I sent him an email, told him who we were, what we were trying to do, and he called me an hour or two later and he said, ‘Joe, what happens when people don’t pay their rent?’

“‘What’s the next step?’ I asked, and he said that we have the first right of refusal, and we were able to start negotiating the lease and everything. We took it over in January, 2018, and our rent went from $500 to $10,000 a month. Jeff and I got the lease and were looking at the terms. We had pro bono attorneys, everybody working with us on this, and Jeff said, ‘Where are we going to get that money from?’

“I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ve been a nonprofit executive for a long time, and Oakland needs this and people will support it. So, let’s just get busy.’ 

“So we took it over, we put a blast out to the community for office space. We filled the offices with gay and trans therapists. They rented the offices, and it cut our rent a little over half. Then we did drag shows in our main room to raise money, and that pretty much got us to about $8,000, and then the rest was just donations. 

“At first, all we had were support groups, but then therapists rented the offices. I’m a grant writer, so we started writing grants, and I knew what we needed from my background. We secured our first contract with the city to help LGBTQ youth; from there we secured another contract to help Black and Latinx men who are at risk for HIV; and from there we wrote a big clinic grant for $4 million that we secured in 2020, which transformed our whole situation. Since then, we’ve just grown to a multimillion dollar multi-service agency.”

It’s now been five years since the Oakland LGBTQ Center has opened, and its meteoric rise owes much to the services they provide to not only the LGBTQ community, but the entirety of Oakland in need.

“Everyone benefits when the most marginalized people are the ones running the show,” Hawkins said. “We provide so many services now, from emergency rental assistance to food, transportation assistance, mental health, recovery services, for people who are dealing with addiction and recovery. We have a clinic where we do we do everything from sexual health to monkeypox. Recently, we were the primary CBL community based organization to launch the monkeypox vaccine clinic. We do them in the office and because a lot of people don’t want to stand outside in line. We do clinic appointments, but we also do them across the street here.”

“There are back-to-back Pride festivals in Oakland now. There’s one this weekend, and our fifth anniversary in Pride Fest on Sept. 11. We will have a big vaccination clinic for what we call ‘MPox,’ because ‘monkeypox’ sounded kind of racist in some ways. Then we’ll go back to doing the mass vaccine, because we’re now going into the second dose of this two dose treatment, just like the COVID vaccine. We’ll be really busy doing that too.”

As was the case with COVID, MPox has disproportionately affected marginalized populations; this brought back troubling memories for Hawkins. 

“I’m from the days when HIV was around. I was a social worker back in the ’80s. I was working in Oakland, and I would see young men walking around the streets with canes because of AIDS. There was no treatment, there was nothing. I know the trauma of how that lives in the community’s cultural memory,” he said. “When MPox came, people started posting videos of what they had, which I thought was very brave and very needed. My timeline literally started to fill up, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t just a few people,’ and it took me back to the ’80s and ’90s when HIV and AIDS were killing so many people.

“People were scared. Depending on the severity, it’s really painful, and it leaves scars, and people have issues with scars. No one would want that, which is why I’m really happy that we’re seeing so many people get vaccinated. Our first two weeks of registrations were about 1,400 appointments. Black and Latinx men have had the highest rates of cases, and that’s disproportionate for those communities, but we are seeing Black and Latinx men come in and get vaccinated too. We’ve been helping to get the word out about that, and I’m really happy to see so many women coming in to get vaccinated as well.”

The MPox vaccinations come through the center’s Glenn Burke Wellness Clinic. Many are not as familiar with the iconic athlete as they should.  

“Glenn Burke is my hero,” Hawkins said. “Jeff and I received an award about four years ago, just right after a year after we opened the center, from the Multicultural Sports Hall of Fame. When we first got the notice, I was like, ‘Jeff, I know you can’t do anything but jump rope, and I can do a mean Patty Cake.’ We had no idea why we were being recognized by them. But then we realized that it was in the name of this guy, Glenn Burke, and we weren’t sure who he was.

“When we got there, they were premiering a documentary about his life. By the time that documentary was over, I was in tears. I probably even worked with this man, and didn’t know he was a hero. Glenn Burke was America’s first out gay, Major League Baseball player. He initially played for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was compared to Willie Mays. 

“He was unapologetically gay while he was playing in the majors. They even offered to pay him $75,000 in 1970s-money to marry a woman. Instead, he dated (LA Dodgers’ coach) Tommy Lasorda’s son, and they kicked him out. He came back to Oakland, which is where he’s from. He was a star player at Berkeley High. 

“He was blackballed from Major League Baseball, and it was very traumatizing for him because he loved it. He was actually a great basketball player too, but he loved baseball. And he started playing with the San Francisco gay softball league, but nothing really was the same after that. He became addicted to crack cocaine, and he died of AIDS in 1995.”

Burke may have died in obscurity, but he made a lasting impact, not just in baseball, but in all sports and popular culture. 

“In 1976 in LA, he and Dusty Baker were accredited with something that we all know so well today in sports; it was never sort of captured on film before,” Hawkins said. “During the World Series, Dusty Baker hit a home run, and Glenn Burke was so happy that he ran over to him and he put his hand up. Baker said, ‘I didn’t know what to do. So I put my hand up,’ and that was the first high five. The first that was recorded at least.

“His documentary is on YouTube. Jamie Lee Curtis bought the rights to his story, and she and Ryan Murphy are working on a film about his life. And what’s so wonderful about that is our Glenn Burke Health Clinic is right here in Oakland. We wanted to create a clinic that he would have benefited from. 

“His family came here when we were getting it started, and we had to get the rights to his name. We had to work with Major League Baseball, Billy Bean and so many other people to make it happen. They’ve renamed Pride Night to Glenn Burke Pride Night for the Oakland As, and LA did their first Glenn Burke Pride Night this year; it was packed. I’m very honored and humbled when I see hundreds of people come through our clinic that bear his name, and that just knowing what he went through, is so powerful to me. “

As for the upcoming Pride event on Sept. 11, it promises to be one for the ages. 

“Iheartradio’s DJ Christie (James) does everything, and she’s the co-chair with Sean Sullivan, the other co-chair. Our role is to ensure transparency, and make sure that conflicts of interest are identified. This feels like it’s going to be a celebration where at the end, everyone will know where the money went, and that’s important,” Hawkins said.

“People are going to have a good time. There will be over a hundred vendors, and of course, getting Big Freedia, which I still can’t believe, that’s a big name right there, is so great. She’s on the hot song of the summer, “Break My Soul,” with Beyonce. Yeah. We also got the legendary Crystal Waters, and there’s this amazing new Indian artist named Madam Gandhi. People are gonna be blown away by her. There will be three stages showcasing so much talent from and for our community.”

D. Scot Miller
Managing Editor of The East Bay Express, Former Associate Editor of Oakland Magazine and Alameda Magazine, Columnist-In-Residence at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)'s Open Space, Advisory Board Member of Nocturnes Journal of Literary Arts, and regular contributor to several newspapers, websites and magazines. Miller is the founder of The Afrosurreal Arts Movement through his publication of The Afrosurreal Manifesto in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 20, 2009.
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