The LGBTQ Center OC turns 50 this year, meaning it’s been a long time since the organization’s early days as a telephone hotline operating from a theater projection booth.
That humble start came two years after the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, when a violent raid by New York Police at a Greenwich Village tavern led to days of demonstrations. Those demonstrations, in turn, kicked off what eventually became a national movement for gay, lesbian and transgender rights.
But when the Orange County helpline started, the county’s gay scene was limited to a few bars in Garden Grove and Laguna Beach.
Brad Brafford, a member of The Center’s first board of directors, succinctly described in a Register story how gay people met at the time: “We used to say ‘Bars, baths and bushes.’”
There were Bible studies, too, held by Christ Chapel MCC in Costa Mesa. Other people met for raps (’70s-era slang for informal talk sessions) in the garage of John Rule’s Costa Mesa home, which was distinct for its pink mailbox. The helpline and the raps eventually evolved into an organization, The Gay Community Center of Orange County, and Brafford signed the articles of incorporation.
Later, a single office opened near the bars on Garden Grove Boulevard. Today, The Center’s home is a suite of offices in Santa Ana. And, over the years, services and name changes have reflected the needs and nuances of the times. (Videos produced for The Center’s 50th anniversary chronicle its history and capture the broadened coalition of people it serves.)
Here are voices of some of the people who have shaped — or been helped by — what most folks just call “The Center.”
From rap group to political action
In 1983, Michael Losquadro was a 19-year-old college student in Fullerton when he came out to his childhood best friend. He later found his way to The Center, where he would become a volunteer leader for young adults, help develop a donor base, and openly participate in momentous local and national causes — the fight against AIDS in the 1980s, OC’s first gay pride event in 1989, the 1993 National March on Washington for Gay Rights.
Losquadro, now 57, made his career in university fundraising. But he’s also a reserve lieutenant with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department who speaks to new recruits about diversity and his personal journey. He lives in Seal Beach with his husband, Dr. Brian Keller, a physician who has been on The Center’s board for 12 years.
“I was sitting in Sunday church, hearing sermons about the evilness of homosexuality; going to the youth group after the sermon and hearing comments by my friends about gays. And that was just not a healthy environment.
“This was back when we had phone books, and I got the white pages out and I looked up ‘gay.’ The Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County was listed, and they had a hotline. I called that hotline and spoke with a volunteer who understood my struggle and recommended that I come to the youth program that following Sunday night.
“We were meeting at the Unitarian Church in Anaheim at the time, which no longer is there. They didn’t have offices, and then when they did have an office it was just an office. They didn’t have meeting space. That came later.
“I went around the block a couple of times, passed by the church, and finally got up the courage to go in. Sat in the back, kind of crouched under my hoodie parka.
“My life changed that night.
“I got an opportunity to meet other young men and women who were struggling with the same issues, who welcomed me with open arms. It became my circle of friends. I would go nearly every single Sunday night for the next four years.
“We had no staff back then. There was an executive director who was trying to raise money to get us on the map.
“I graduated Fullerton in ’86 and that’s when I agreed that I would take over the youth program… We passed a bucket every night, and we all threw a dollar or two into the bucket before we left. That was to keep the electricity on in the one little office on Garden Grove Boulevard, where the executive director worked.
“I learned what it was like to be a confident, educated member of the LGBT community. I advocated and marched and spoke to legislators and raised money and went on to become the treasurer of the Gay Political Action Committee in Orange County.
“I was a volunteer of the very first Orange County AIDS Walk and a staff member of the second AIDS walk. AIDS was in full blown turmoil. I mean, our leaders were dying around us. All the time. Some of the most prominent members of our community died of AIDS back then.
“We were grieving while we were fighting; while we were trying to survive. You could be fired from your job. You could be thrown out of your housing arrangement. There were no discrimination protections in place. Gay men were being encouraged not to get tested because the medical records would reflect your HIV status.
“The attitude in Orange County was changing, but ever so slowly. It was still a very conservative Republican county. I remember Lou Sheldon fighting us in Santa Ana when we sought a permit to hold the first Orange County gay pride festival.
“In the early years, for sure, The Center was more male dominated. The LGBT community, honestly, back then it was G and L. It was gay first, lesbian second. The B was silent. T was pretty much unheard of back then.”
Giving voice to women’s issues
In the mid-’90s, Kathy Yhip and Laura Green were looking for ways to socialize. The couple, who met on the job at Southern California Edison, joined an LGBTQ square dance group called The Golden Squares. That’s where they heard about The Center.
Yhip began to volunteer, partly to honor the memory of a friend who had died of AIDS. She became board secretary and served a few years as chair; one of a few women leaders at the time. The San Clemente couple married in 2008, the year the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in California. They soon found themselves marching against Proposition 8, passed by the state’s voters in November 2008 to override the court. In 2015, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld gay marriage rights.
“I think I was one of two women on the board when I joined. For awhile, I was the only woman. Our brothers were dying or sick with HIV and AIDS; women had to step in and fill the void.
“There still weren’t a lot of programs at The Center for women.
“One of the things that I did, after I stepped down from the chair position, in collaboration with a couple of other women – Dr. Lydia Vaias and Althea Ingram — was the Women’s Health Alliance. It was an attempt to identify health care resources that were welcoming and supportive of lesbians in Orange County, so you didn’t have to worry about your primary care physician turning around and telling you, ‘Oh, you’re a lesbian? I want nothing to do with you.’
“We wanted a place where women could have some assurance that if they wanted a health care provider, their needs would be met.
“We developed a list of locations. It was not a very long list. But if someone called The Center saying they were looking for an ob-gyn, we’d provide them with a couple of options.
“When I was the chair, more than anything, I was doing a lot of the administrative and governance stuff. I was just trying to keep The Center moving forward. Folks had to be willing to go ask for money. It was an important step in the growth process. We were still a very small, grassroots-driven organization. A lot of the outside funding came in from either grants around HIV and AIDS, or from specific donors.
“Along with Patricia Callahan, I worked with other folks to put on the 25th celebration. It was at the Disneyland Hotel. Disney was one of the forerunners in terms of having an LGBTQ employee group. They were very supportive.
“I remember, at the salad course, the lights came down and all of the wait staff came in carrying the salads singing ‘Be Our Guest’ (the Oscar-nominated song from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’).
“It was amazing.”
Families learn to adapt
Yvette Cervantes has raised five children as a single mom in Mission Viejo. At 16, her second oldest, Brit, came out as gay, and then, a couple of years later, as transgender. That was about 10 years ago. Brit, Cervantes says, was assigned female at birth and has since undergone surgeries. Brit now presents as male and prefers the pronoun they/them.
Initially, Cervantes and the rest of the family had to do their own mental and emotional transitioning. Initially, after coming out as transgender, Brit was absent from the family. But The Center helped reunite the family. And, through The Center, Cervantes has learned how to help others.
“There was this immediate fear. At that point, I was the sole income for our family, and my boss was the elder at our church. So, it was one of those, ‘OK, you’re going to come out; you’re going to be seen. It’s going to be posted everywhere. What’s going to happen to my job?’
“During that one year they were gone, Brit found The Center. The Center became really a life saver for them. They were able to talk to people, understand that they were not alone. There were others like them. They were going to be accepted.
“So, as a parent, how do you not give back?
“Once Brit came here, I started coming. It’s been right around 10 years. I needed to learn. I was fearful in a sense. I was afraid to say the wrong thing to lose them again. But, at the same time, I had questions. I had to learn somehow — to talk to other parents who were having the same issues, having the same thoughts and not understanding.
“I was able to finally kind of connect some dots. It’s weird to say, but when Brit first came out that was one thing. It was so scary because of the world we lived in and continue to live in. And as trans, it’s even scarier.
“We go anywhere and I’m like, somebody go to the bathroom with Brit and stand outside the bathroom. When we’re out in public, what do we do? What can I say? What can I not say?
“Understanding pronouns — we went from she to he/him to they/them. We transitioned a lot. I learned that as a family of a transgender kid, it is not just your kid that transitions. It is your entire family. And The Center helped me understand that.
“You lose friends. You lose family that doesn’t understand. Through The Center, I found my chosen family. If I’m going to have an issue, or if I’m unsure of something, I call them first.
“Brit works for the UCI Gender Diversity Clinic. The program works a lot with The Center. We went from attending groups to speaking on panels. It becomes so easy now to talk to parents that are in that same position I was in years ago. The Center has helped me have a voice.
“I was listened to when I didn’t know the right response.”
Solid ground to move forward
Peg Corley became executive director of The Center in October 2016. Corley, 51, got married in April; she and her wife live in Riverside. A financial planner, Corley started as a volunteer on the board in 1998. The Center offers a variety of services that include school outreach, mental health counseling, transgender health and wellness programs, immigration services, and HIV testing. In addition to the two-story office building it owns, The Center also has an event space/art gallery called The Brad Brafford LGBTQ Center on 4th, in downtown Santa Ana. During her time with The Center, Corley has witnessed highs and lows, as the nonprofit’s finances expanded, dipped, and then found surer footing.
“We were in Garden Grove, had been for years. We were growing. We had taken on a new grant for tobacco cessation and were expanding.
“We created and formed a youth center in Garden Grove, kind of adjacent to our office building – almost like a warehouse kind of a thing where we put in a pool table, laundry facility, showers, a kitchen. It wasn’t an overnight shelter but it was a drop-in center from like 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. There were counselors on site.
“Then, shortly after that, the tobacco money kind of dried up. We had to downsize really quickly. That was the early 2000s.
“Our new incoming executive director, Terry Stone, led us through rediscovering what programs were sustainable on a smaller budget. We had to let the youth drop-in center go. We had to renegotiate some of our contracts. We had to rebuild relationships with funders, with donors, with stakeholders. That was a turning point for us, around 2006.
“We ended up basically getting better at telling our stories. We ended up putting on a capital campaign after we stabilized our organization. Then we bought this building in 2007.
“It was a huge turnaround.
“Marriage equality; I had hoped I would see that in my lifetime. To have marriage equality was a game changer.
“Our fight really then turned toward trans rights and protecting our youth in schools. There’s the California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA), where LBGTQ rights are supposed to be acknowledged in schools in California. So, the fight kind of went more localized — getting rights for transgender folks in the workplace and then also for our students in schools.
“We have staff, board directors, volunteers, youth leaders, members of our youth groups attend school board meetings to advocate for CHYA. We’re present in over 50 GSA’s — which used to stand for Gay Straight Alliances and now it’s Gender Sexuality Alliances — in middle schools and high schools.
“We help the students in the GSA learn about LGBTQ history, how to advocate for themselves and for other students like them, and then also know the rights of LGBTQ students in California.
“My main role? I think protecting the longevity of this organization so that the work can continue over generations and decades further.
“As The Center has evolved, it’s become more inclusive of our entire community. Now we’re focusing on race equity because our Black and Brown family members have not necessarily seen themselves in this organization. We’re changing that by the simple flag we fly, the symbols we use, the language we use.
“The flag is called a progress pride flag. You’ll see that it’s got the trans colors in there (blue, pink and white) and it’s got black and brown stripes.
“You will see social media programming designed specifically for people of color. And you’ll see partnerships with organizations that directly serve people of color.
“We have far more allies than people who want to hold us back or slow us down. Orange County is evolving too, just like we are. It’s a movement. And we’re all in it.”
Source: Orange County Register