Just across from the historical gold mine of queer culture and history that is rainy San Francisco lies Oakland, the unique hodgepodge of cultural backgrounds, struggles, and the stories both entail. As it's America’s most ethnically diverse city, there is a lot to say about Oakland and a lot that Oakland says about our nation. But in one area, its streets are filled with silence.
Until now, Oakland had been the only major city in California without an LGBT center. This crucial resource finally became available when founders Jeff Myers and Joe Hawkins opened the doors of the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, their newest labor of love in a community they’ve spent their lives fighting for and with. Hawkins is executive director of the center, and Myers is president of its board.
As they embark on their journey of centralizing the queer community in their city, one thing is clear: There are different rules in Oakland. First of all, it’s hard to find and afford a space — they’ve settled into the “Co-Munity Building” at 3207 Lakeshore Ave., a small but well-organized spot nestled above a cell phone store. But that’s not the only reason. When asked why it took so long to set up a safe space in Oakland, Hawkins told The Advocate, “We’re 15 minutes from San Francisco, and San Francisco is a storied LGBT city. I think for many years, people in Oakland have felt overshadowed by San Francisco. People just usually think, Oh, you can just go to San Francisco.”
Although the Golden City and its resources are a short drive away, they aren’t necessarily all that helpful to Oakland residents, who often represent many intersectional identities. “Unless you live here, it’s very hard for you to understand that San Francisco has not necessarily been the most diverse place on the planet, and with the intense gentrification that has happened here in Bay Area, a lot of people have been pushed into Oakland, causing a groundswell of diversity, particularly in the LGBT community,” Hawkins explains.
For Hawkins, the reason an LGBT center that caters to Oakland’s specific needs is so vital is the same reason it’s been overlooked. “Because Oakland has historically been associated with African-Americans and violence, it’s had a history of social justice work,” he says. “But it’s been seen as a place where a lot of people don’t want to be.” But Hawkins deeply believes that will is changing, citing the burst in racial and ethnic diversity. Oakland has a rich African-American population, but now a large percentage of Asians and Latinos. As a product of gentrification, the white population has increased in the area, making the city anything but homogeneous.
But what is so different about Oakland’s center? What is it doing to offer what other LGBT spaces across the bridge can’t?
“We don’t have to do anything!” asserts Hawkins. “We’re in Oakland. That’s the point. We don’t have to — all we did was say, we’re here. The diversity is here. When we opened our doors, the city came in.” Over 300 workers and volunteers have already joined the effort, and as Hawkins says, “They’re diverse because that’s what Oakland is.”
Being here and being diverse is the at the heart of what Hawkins and Myers are doing. As the only black people to found an LGBT center in California, they are pioneers. But in their minds, this journey is not a revolution; it’s business as usual. “When you live in an ethnically diverse city, where people are used to socializing with different races, it’s not so hard to understand each other’s challenges,” Hawkins says.
As the call for safe spaces that isolate themselves by demographics crescendoes, Hawkins believes that Oakland’s community has an internalized sense of empathy, regardless of race. “When you come together and have African-Americans saying we’re being treated with racism by San Francisco, Caucasians who live here in Oakland understand that,” he says. “Our city is very progressive.”
The mentality that exposure is the best kind of education is refreshing and increasingly rare in our “-ism” obsessed activist era. For Oakland, somehow something as complex as intersectionality is obvious. According to the founders, the troubled conversations about where people of color fit in the queer movement and other LGBT centers often arise from those centers' leadership and staff. Myers also warns against adding someone to the project as a token to fill a diversity quota: “Make sure they want to be there.”
For them, as black gay activists who always wanted to be on the front lines, being oppressed in numerous ways is a daily reality, and that comes with a level of understanding of how to cater to the people of every background, regardless of the color of their skin. “As an African-American, especially in Oakland, I’ve had to deal with white people. Did you know there are white people who never have to deal with black people or any ethnic minority?” Hawkins asks, using his experience as evidence of the following: “We’re an all-inclusive center. We’re not a black center.“
It is, however, a center in need of financial support. “No center survives off of passion. We are really working hard to get funding to make sure this center remains open for generations to come,” Hawkins says.
For more on the center, visit its website, providing news on its health, youth, trans, and senior programs.