An LGBTQ resource center founder’s tale
EL CENTRO – The first thing a visitor to Imperial County will notice is that it is significantly culturally different than the rest of southern California, in part due to its immediate proximity to the U.S. border with Mexico. Valle de Imperial blends the cultures and the languages of both nations, and with the exception of the city of El Centro urban metroplex, is still very much a rural agricultural region.
Unemployment in this border region is often the highest in the nation, and 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line with 73 percent of all residents who are Hispanic.
It is within that cultural distinction that a small, but dedicated group of volunteers led by a determined former California Department of Juvenile Justice Correctional Counselor and a social worker, provides a safe haven- practically an island, for the Imperial Valley’s LGBTQI+ community.
Rosa Diaz, the CEO of the Imperial Valley’s LGBT Resource Center, still marvels that a small group of virtual strangers was able to come together to establish the County’s only LGBTQ Resource and Outreach Center just a short five years ago in 2015. For Diaz, it has been a labor of love and a way to make a difference for others like herself she told the Los Angeles Blade this week in a wide-ranging interview.
The culture of the Valley, she explained, is one with deep roots in Mexican society and cultures of other countries in Latin America. A culture that is built on strong family units with strong ties to church, faith, and centuries of traditions. It is within those parameters she said that any person who is LGBTQ will eventually find themselves estranged or outright shunned and often alone. Many residents know only too well the pain of discrimination- but their traditional ideas about family and religion don’t include same-sex marriage or even being LGBTQ, Diaz noted.
She remembers how difficult it was for her growing up, she says that she always played the roles in playtime normally a boy would fulfill even battling them to take those roles- and at the same time, she did embrace the church and her faith partly because she knew she couldn’t reveal her true self let alone her desires and having that anchor was critical to her. The concept of being a Lesbian was foreign to her culture- her family, LGBT people didn’t exist so the church and her faith became her refuge. Yet the fact that she was different still gnawed at her conscious.
Then came that one moment, as an older closeted adult in her 50’s being in her church listening to the sermon and getting angered by its hateful and exclusionary message, she decided to speak out. She marched up to the front of the church and asked for the microphone then turned and faced the pews.
“I had kept you know cringing during the sermon, it wasn’t right. So when I got the microphone I just told them about me. I said this has to stop. Stop blaming LGBT people for your problems I told them. divorce, sex before marriage- babies out of wedlock, these are all sins too they are wrong but you cannot blame LGBT people for these problems.”
Diaz said that within a week or two she was persona non grata and after weeks of trying she eventually gave up going to church altogether. She said that she was determined to find a place to belong and a sense of community. There were no LGBTQ resources in the Valley so she started visiting LGBT centers north up in the Coachella Valley to Palm Springs and west into San Diego County.
In 2008, California’s Proposition 8 and the fight over marriage equality spurred on a renewed passion to establish a center in the Valley for people just like her.
When the case went to trial, then California Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to defend the measure. Diaz said that she was disheartened when local officials headed by a former Chair of the Board of Supervisors joined the fight to keep same-sex marriage illegal with the anti-LGBT right-wing Christian right group, The Alliance Defense Fund.
The fight over LGBT marriage equality left deep wounds. The San Francisco Chronicle noted in a piece published Sunday, August 22, 2010; “The Imperial Valley has always been very anti-LGBT,” said Fernando Lopez, 28, who grew up in El Centro and is gay. “If you are gay there, there is nothing to turn to for support. It’s just really backward.”
In the Spring of 2015, Diaz said that the lack of visibility coupled with a lack of a resource center for the valley drove her to borrow a building and start to build a center. She put the word out that she was establishing a non-profit and to her shock she says, people who were complete strangers to her and even to each other came together to work on establishing the by-laws, the articles and structure for the new nonprofit, working with legal firms offering their services pro bono, and critically setting its mission for serving the Valley’s LGBT community.
When she told a local community leader about her goals for establishing the center, the person remarked, “Why are you bringing Sodom and Gomorrah here?” The center launched with its grand opening in October of 2015. “It was a long uphill fight,” she said adding, “We are here to stay.”
The center has partnered with outside organizations like San Diego Pride which has given the IVLGBT Center a free booth for the past four years. Diaz proudly said that the Center has also participated in LGBTQ awareness and sensitivity training for the IV Sheriff’s Office as well as the local California State Probation & parole office.
She said that groups for youth, the Trans community, drug and alcohol, mental health issues are all a part of the center’s portfolio. The principal mission is the center’s ability to connect the Valley’s LGBTQ community with resources.
As the center works to provide services and resources to the Valley’s LGBTQI+ community that is largely still invisible and culturally at odds, Diaz says that she and her staff embrace her mantra, “Don’t expect people to always understand you. Instead, learn to understand them. Then accept, forgive, and love unconditionally. This is a sure way to be happy.”