Orange County is home to many trailblazers in the local LGBTQ community who tirelessly work to serve others, advocate for inclusivity and equal rights, and inspire those around them to live and love as their authentic selves. In honor of Pride Month, we’re celebrating those individuals and the organizations they lead, and hearing them tell us, in their own words, what Pride means to them.
Executive director of The LBGTQ Center Orange County
The Center celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Tell us a bit about that history.
We were founded in 1971, just two years after the Stonewall riots that kicked off the LGBT movement in this country. People are surprised to hear that the Center is the fourth oldest in the country. We were formed just after the ones in New York, San Francisco, and L.A. And that was because back in the day, Laguna Beach was a real hub for the community—a safe space in conservative Orange County.
How has the organization evolved over the years?
Our mission has been steadfast; we advocate on behalf of the queer community. What has changed is what that advocacy looks like. In the beginning, it was lesbians and gays trying to have jobs and families and rights. Now our advocacy for the most marginalized people looks like LGBTQ seniors who need help because they want their partners to be able to visit them in assisted living facilities. Trans people, specifically trans people of color, whose very safety is our primary concern. Or helping students with their Gay Straight Alliance clubs; we’re in 46 middle and high schools in O.C. People think, “Oh it’s OK to be queer now; young people have it so easy.” Not the case.
What are some of the other services you offer?
Another big one is our health counseling program. We conduct more than 7,000 sessions a year, in multiple languages and on a sliding scale so that no one is ever turned away. The need for these services is at an all-time high, up 40 percent from last year, which was in itself a record year. We also offer overall health and wellness services in the areas of STI services, tobacco cessation, and substance use prevention. And a program that many people don’t know we offer is immigration resources. Asylum seekers leave their home countries because they are being persecuted and they come here looking for a better life, often finding themselves in ICE detention. We help them with housing, transportation, mental health services, and more.
How has the LGBTQ community in O.C. changed since you moved here in the ’90s?
Overall, it’s changed for the better. Our allyship within the greater community of Orange County has been better. It’s easier to be LGBTQ in Orange County. But that has also made it less necessary to have those gathering spots in Laguna Beach and elsewhere, which makes it hard to find the community. So it’s more mainstream, which is good, but for those most marginalized folks, it’s hard for them to find that community. And that’s where the Center comes in. A lot of people think we’ve progressed so much, why do we still need LGBTQ centers? The fact is, because we’ve progressed so much, more and more people are coming out every year. And many of them are not met with acceptance from their families and communities. We meet them where they are.
President and director of operations at Orange County Pride
Tell us about OC Pride’s parade and festival.
It’s always been a smaller Pride, but in 2019 we blew up. We hit about 30,000 attendees, and it kind of shot us into the bigger Pride arena. I sit around all the time trying to figure out why that happened in 2019; as far as I can tell, it was just kind of the perfect moment, the perfect time in history. The need is obviously there, the community is becoming more visible. This is a 100-percent volunteer-run organization; the volunteers staff the entire festival.
What other events do you host?
We try to do a really wide range throughout the year. Anything from catering to the youth, such as painting in the park or family picnics, and then we do a lot of adult events including drag bingos, Bearlesque where it’s gentlemen burlesque dancers, the Closet Ball, where we take seasoned drag performers and people who have never done a drag before, and we put on a big drag show. We try to do at least a monthly event; we’re Pride 365, which means that you’re working all year long to do events for the community. Some Prides only throw the Pride Festival every year.
Why are Pride events so important to the community?
Throwing the festival itself is amazing because it provides a space (for the LGBTQ community). To be surrounded by people who are like you just gives you this sense of belonging. We keep it free because we want the teenagers to be able to come as well. A lot of us were gay teenagers who couldn’t afford to get into Pride, and we really wanted to be there. There’s not a single event or festival that I’ve thrown that somebody doesn’t jump into my arms crying and thanking me. And that’s why we do it—for those moments, for those people. You can just see it in their eyes how much this meant to them. It just gives you the chills all over and you say, “OK, this is why I work so hard all year.”
President and chairman of the Orange County Gay Men’s Chorus
Tell us about the history of the OCGMC.
This is our 21st year. It was started as an opportunity for gay men to network and have a musical home and also to entertain and educate Orange County. Twenty years ago, the environment was not as receptive to a gay organization. But we persevered and became what we are today, which is a well-known group locally and even nationally.
Do you also sing?
Yes, I sing bass. We’re the foundation of the group. Every section has a very high opinion of themselves, and we’re no exception. My involvement began in 2018 when I moved here from Michigan. I had sung with groups there, and when I found this group I couldn’t wait to join. I got deeply involved and was elected president and chairman of the board in 2019. I don’t do anything in a small way.
Why is the group so important to you?
The gay community in Orange County is quite fragmented. To find a community where a person can be themselves is an important thing. There’s something about choral music that brings people together, and it provides a strong bonding opportunity for these men. When male voices merge, they multiply all on their own. The world melts away and you’re one voice. We rehearse every week, and we have a great musical director, Bob Gunn. Though the chorus is in the spotlight, it’s much bigger than that. We provide a safe haven for our members and give back as much as possible to O.C. We just kicked off a senior outreach project in partnership with the LGBTQ Center OC. We reach out to single gay seniors and provide wellness checks, get them pen pals and free tickets to our concerts.
Where can people see you perform next?
We’ll be singing the national anthem at the O.C. Soccer Club’s Pride event on June 4. And we have a concert on July 16 focused on modern queer performers and composers. It will pull from today’s pop music with a few throwbacks. We hope to emphasize how we’re part of America and part of this community.
Khloe Rios Wyatt
President and CEO of Alianza Translatinx
What led to you cofounding the organization?
Alianza Translatinx started in April of 2020 and by August of that year we were officially registered as a nonprofit. We’re under the sponsorship of TransLatina Coalition, which is a national advocacy organization based out of Los Angeles. Alianza Translatinx the first trans-led organization in Orange County. We address the needs of the local transgender and gender nonconforming community. Our office is in Santa Ana. The organization was founded as a response to the lack of services and resources specifically designed to address the large disparities the transgender and gender nonconforming community faces here.
How do you tackle those disparities?
During the pandemic, we really wanted to assist members of the community who were houseless, by providing support, food, and information. The need was exacerbated at the time, but it continues. We provide direct services such as mental health therapy sessions and legal name and gender marker change supportive services—which means we assist community members to update their legal documentation to reflect their current identity, for free. We also have a social group that meets once a week, and on Fridays we have a collaboration with Second Harvest Food Bank to provide pantry and fresh goods to community members.
Are you also an advocacy organization?
Yes, we advocate for the rights of our community members, and we often partner with organizations to bring awareness to the needs of our community. We have events such as community health fairs, our annual Trans Pride in August, and our TransGiving dinner in November aimed to serve community members who have been displaced from their families.
What does Alianza mean?
It translates as Alliance. The purpose is to create alliances within our community. Our doors are open to everyone. Our services are available to anyone. But we do focus on the communities that are most vulnerable. Growing up in Orange County, I always felt that this was a very conservative county and there was little support from local organizations for the trans community. And unfortunately, I continue to see that. While we’re making history in establishing this organization, there’s still a long way to go. Our community members continue to face discrimination and harassment. I continue to see hate crimes. And the only way to change that is working together with other local organizations to make change.
Executive director and CEO of Radiant Health Centers
How long has your organization provided health and HIV care to the O.C. LGBTQ community?
We were founded in 1985 by a group of volunteers who had seen friends, family members, and neighbors dying of this strange new disease, which was HIV. In that first decade, there wasn’t great treatment. So really our focus was helping people die with dignity. In 1995, when new medications came out, suddenly there was hope. Our focus became helping people get treatment.
What services did you develop to help achieve that goal?
We built out housing and transportation services, nutrition support, mental health counseling, anything to help folks with their treatment. And then after that, we really wanted to focus on HIV prevention through testing and outreach in the community. The highest rates of infection were in communities of color. But it wasn’t a lack of education. What was lacking was access to appropriate healthcare. There was a survey done and providers were asked, “Are you comfortable serving members of the LGBTQ+ community?” And 70 percent said, “yes.” Now, that doesn’t sound bad. But the next question was, “Do you feel you lack the training to serve the LGBTQ+ community?” And 70 percent said, “yes.”
What does the organization look like today?
We continue to provide the full continuum of support for HIV, but we also provide medical care, screenings, family planning services, and our ultimate goal is to end this epidemic. The only way to do that is to address the inequities in healthcare. I first got involved here as a volunteer (in 1993) because a family friend, a young man 30 years old, had suddenly passed away from HIV. And his family had to deal with it alone. As a gay man, HIV had a major effect on my community. I made it my life’s work to do everything to help those with HIV.
Founder and president of Operation Warm Wishes
Why did you start Operation Warm Wishes?
I started Operation Warm Wishes 15 years ago because of my own struggles. Growing up, I was homeless for a couple years, living in various motels around Orange County. I didn’t fit in as a teenager and I was bullied a lot. Being Christian and gay, people told me I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do; but all I wanted to do was serve and make a difference. I want to give hope to people who are told they don’t matter or that they can’t do something. When I was experiencing some tough times in my youth and early 20s, I asked God “Why am I going through all of this?” At first, I didn’t really understand it, but now it all makes sense. The people who I’m helping are experiencing a lot of the same things I have. I believe it all served its purpose.
What services does your nonprofit provide?
We provide food, clothing, housing, laundry services, and mentorship programs. When we first started, we were only in Tustin, but now we’re all over Southern California. We don’t care who you are or where you’re at in your life, we’re going to help you.
Have you faced challenges because of your sexuality?
Yes, especially at the beginning. In 2010, I was crowned Mr. Gay Orange County. I used that platform to further what I was doing. I was in the newspaper for the events I was throwing, and some people would sign up and offer to help, but after finding out I’m gay, they would call and say things like “We don’t really believe in your lifestyle, so we won’t be helping you.” What lifestyle am I living? I’m helping people, and I just happen to be gay.
What makes your work fulfilling?
Knowing that seeds have been planted. It’s not only the homeless or those in need who are getting help; a lot of times it’s the volunteers who are receiving a lesson of love and kindness. Many people who volunteer for the first time with Operation Warm Wishes didn’t previously have a passion to serve, but now they’re starting their own organizations and are doing big things.
Any events this month?
Yes, we’re having a Father’s Day event for homeless dads. We’re giving the guys a day at a golf club where they can golf and bond with each other. Our homeless men are the ones who can feel especially low and need encouragement, so I want to make sure they get that.
President of the Orange County Lavender Bar Association
Celebrating its 12th year, the OCLBA is an affiliate organization of the Orange County Bar Association.
“We are the longest-running LGBTQ legal organization in Orange County, and there are three things that we do primarily. First is visibility—letting people know that there is an active and vibrant LGBTQ community within the bar here in Orange County. Also to educate our members about LGBTQ issues locally, statewide, and nationally. And lastly, networking and giving people the opportunity to come together and share their experiences. We have a few marquee events we do yearly, such as the Harvey Milk Day Luncheon where we’ll have a guest speaker to get us up-to-date on LGBTQ legislation. I suspect the focus this year will be on upcoming decisions the Supreme Court will be making, as well as the increased wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation. But our purpose is really to provide a safe place. To let law students see people in the law community who are out and proud. To show that you can be your true and authentic self in your professional career here in Orange County.”
Assistant general manager of Tin Lizzie Saloon
The Costa Mesa establishment is one of the longest-running gay bars in Orange County.
“This bar has been here since the ’50s, and I believe it’s been a gay bar since the ’70s. When my friends, the owners of Memphis Cafe, bought it in 2005, the only stipulation the owner had was that it remain a gay bar. I’ve been coming here since I was 21, and I’m 43 now. We’re really a family. There’s such a sense of community here and we welcome everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, bi, trans, or straight. We’re just a friendly neighborhood/gayborhood watering hole, and our longevity speaks for itself.”
Associate professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine
The author of “The Queer Games Avant Garde” won the Stonewall Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2021.
“Queer games can be video games that have LGBT content in them—so that might be LGBT characters, story lines, romance lines. Also, video games that are made by LGBT people. Some of them can be very experimental. One of my favorites is called “Octodad,” where you are playing as a bright yellow octopus in a business suit. You have to walk around this suburban home. You have a wife and kids, and you have to pretend that you are a normal human dad. You succeed in the game by walking around and not knocking over too many things and not getting noticed. It seems fun and ridiculous. But if you look for the meaning below the surface, you can see that it’s actually about trying to pass. You’re trying to look like you are a white, straight, cisgender dad who is trying to navigate this world that is not meant for you in a body that doesn’t fit. It becomes a queer and trans story through the metaphor of this octopus.”