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LGBTs mobilizing to aid queer fire survivors

by Heather Cassell

LGBTs in wine country are mobilizing to create a safe space to help queer residents receive assistance in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, following the recent North Bay firestorm.

More than 20 LGBTs throughout Sonoma County, including heads of some of its LGBT organizations, met October 19 to come up with solutions to aid queer survivors of the wildfires.

One of the first things they decided to do is create a virtual LGBT community center, tentatively called SoCo LGBT Community Center.

The goal of the center and the group is to gather LGBT-friendly resources and fundraise to support immediate and long-term needs for the LGBT community as recovery efforts begin.

Wildfires in the North Bay broke out late October 8 and burned for days in multiple counties. Authorities said that 42 people died, and an estimated 8,400 structures were destroyed, making it one of the worst fires in state history.

The blazes are now all nearly contained, evacuation orders have been lifted, and people are returning to their homes, and in many cases, lots covered with debris.

Last week's meeting was led by Gary Carnivele, owner of and host of OutBeat Radio.

Attendees expressed their concerns about the needs of the community during the relief and recovery efforts. People were worried about the housing crisis, which was instantly made worse by thousands of homes being destroyed, and people being forced to leave the county if they couldn't find temporary housing. They expressed the need to find LGBT-friendly housing for displaced queer people.

Others expressed safety issues in the evacuation shelters for seniors, undocumented individuals, people who don't speak English, and youth. The group also discussed raising funds for individuals who don't have access to traditional crisis financial relief, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The group's primary goals were to rapidly reach out to LGBT people in the shelters that remain open to let them know about available resources and figuring out ways to inform people who have left the shelters.

Eliseo Rivas, a 26-year-old gay gender non-conforming individual who is program coordinator at LGBTQ Connection in Sonoma County, described what it was like staying in the shelters.

"When it came to gender, sometimes going to the shelters wasn't as safe as I thought it would be," said Rivas. "You're vulnerable and then being asked about your gender and using the restrooms."

The group decided to create a database of LGBT-friendly temporary and long-term housing that was accessible to the community, including those who can offer housing and those who need housing. Others focused on creating the virtual community center and fundraising efforts, including quickly distributing the money to those who need it.

Brian Rogers, a member of the planning committee of Sonoma Pride, offered to be the fiscal sponsor of the virtual center.

Outwatch Film Festival, Out in the Vineyards, Sonoma Pride, Sonoma Gaydar, and other organizations announced fundraising efforts to support the recovery for the LGBT community.

The group suggested foundations they could approach to assist in handling monies and distributing grants.

Tuck Carter, 47, a gay insurance claims adjuster who has responded to natural disasters for more than 20 years, offered some for homeowners and renters as they recover from the fires. He was in Santa Rosa last week helping people file their claims and, before that, he was in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

Carter acknowledged California's ongoing housing crisis was posing a unique situation in the aftermath of the fires, but he advised people should first check their insurance policy and contact their insurance provider. Homeowners should look for temporary housing and additional living provisions to see how much they could receive.

Renters should also check their insurance policy to see if they have similar provisions, he told the Bay Area Reporter. People should keep receipts and track expenditures and speak with a tax professional, Carter said.

People left the meeting feeling empowered about the next steps in the recovery efforts.

"I hope that we will be able to get to those people who are in need," said Bonnie Bryen, a 42-year-old transgender woman. "I hope that we get to those people who are struggling to find places, to find resources, to find those simple things that they need and connect them with those resources."

Cheryl Kabanuck, 60, a lesbian who runs Santa Rosa Gaydar and the Lez B Here and There meet-up group, said she felt positive.

"I feel like there's a lot of good leaders here in this room that belonged to a lot of good organizations here in Sonoma County," said Kabanuck. "It's a great community, it's very active, and we have so many people just working to get our community together."

Rivas agreed, adding, "I wasn't planning on it being this productive or this well attended or this heartfelt. Relief efforts are going to be a marathon not just a sprint."

Carnivele said he thought the group would make headway.

He noted that many people are still in shock in the wake of the devastation of the fires.

The group is meeting weekly on Thursdays. It will gather October 26, from 6 to 9 p.m. at KRCB Broadcasting, 5850 Labath Avenue in Rohnert Park. For more information, contact Carnivele at

At a separate meeting last Thursday night, the board of the Mendo-Lake Pride Alliance decided to donate 50 percent of the proceeds from its forthcoming Halloween party to help Mendocino's general community, said Jennifer Sookne, a board member. [See the item in News Briefs.]

Mendocino County was also hit by wildfires.

Upcoming fundraising events
Outwatch Wine Country's LGBTQI Film Festival will be donating 100 percent of its proceeds to relief and recovery efforts for LGBT fire victims November 2-5 at various locations. Tickets are $10 per screening or $70 for an all-access pass. For more information, visit .

Wine Country Rising, a benefit for North Bay Fire Victims - the LGBTQ community responds, will host an evening of wine, food, and entertainment to raise funds to support relief efforts to benefit victims of the recent North Bay fires. It's produced by Rainbow World Fund and Out in the Vineyard. Wine sponsored by gay-owned winery Eco Terreno Wines. November 12, from 4 to 7 p.m. at 2004 Gough Street, San Francisco. Tickets: $100-$1,000. To RSVP or donate, visit

Holiday bingo party hosted by Graton Resort and Casino and Santa Rosa GayDar will benefit the Sonoma County LGBTQI Giving Circle for Wildfire Relief. Join the holiday festivities with a celebrity host and fun and games - including an ugly sweater contest - and prizes. December 10 from 1 to 7 p.m. at Graton Resort and Casino, 288 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park. $5 for a pack of Bingo Games (7 games). To RSVP, visit .


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