East Bay's Rainbow center has new ED

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 2, 2023
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Christian Aguirre. Photo: Courtesy RCC
Christian Aguirre. Photo: Courtesy RCC

Christian Aguirre, an eight-year veteran of the Rainbow Community Center, is the new executive director of the only LGBTQ community center in Contra Costa County.

Aguirre, a 31-year-old gay man, had been the agency's adult and family program director, overseeing programs relating to older adults, HIV and sexually transmitted infection prevention, the food pantry, and volunteers.

He also performs as drag queen Bella Aldama at Club 1220, an LGBTQ bar in Walnut Creek, as well as at venues in Oakland and in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro neighborhood. The day before speaking to the Bay Area Reporter, Aguirre attended the annual San Francisco AIDS Walk in Golden Gate Park in drag.

"I was the one who actually did the first drag queen story hour in Brentwood, and it was all over the news," Aguirre said.

KTVU-TV reported at the time that the 2019 drag story hour was a success in spite of pushback from people on Facebook who thought it was inappropriate, an experience that foreshadowed for Aguirre some of the more heated vitriol against such drag events that has come in the past couple years.

"It really helped me learn about how different communities are impacted, whether it's young children, parents, family," he said. "I went to the event thinking there'd be 30 people but actually 700 people showed up, which is amazing, especially for a city like Brentwood where there's not so much LGBTQ+ visibility."

Aguirre's journey to heading the East Bay center begins in his home of Guadalajara, Mexico. He immigrated to the United States in his youth, first settling in Martinez.

"Rainbow was the only LGBTQ nonprofit nearby in Contra Costa which made me realize how important these spaces are for the community," he said.

At 14, Aguirre joined the center's youth program. At 18, he became a volunteer.

"From there, you know, for me it was very important to connect with the community that gave so much to me — I had a hard time when I was freshly arrived to the United States and I was figuring out more about myself, my identity, before coming out as gay, and I saw that I did not have enough support at the time, because I didn't have a support system within the school district, and Rainbow was the avenue for me and other youth. It was important for me to give back," Aguirre said.

"I also connected with Rainbow's mission, serving different communities, and people living with HIV," he added. "Friends and family members have been affected by this, and that's why I started volunteering."

As Bella Aldama, Aguirre shares information about how to prevent HIV transmission.

Aguirre replaces Dodi Zotigh, who'd been interim executive director after the departure of Kiku Johnson. The B.A.R. reported last October that Johnson, who'd been executive director for nearly three years, had accepted a job offer in Oregon.

"Christian is poised to take on this new role at Rainbow where he can grow as an LGBTQIA+ community leader," Zotigh stated in a news release. "During these times where the rhetoric against our community continues to increase in vitriol, and anti-trans legislation is at an all time high, we need folks who understand what is at stake, have empathy, ask the right questions, pull in and uplift the talent of our community, and who are willing to push through challenges even when they seem insurmountable — that's what Christian will do.

"No one knows how to throw shade and get it done like a drag queen - so when needed he has his drag persona, Bella Aldama, to lean into as well! I'm so excited to have Christian step into the executive director shoes — I know he'll wear them with style, poise, and fierceness!" Zotigh added.

Robyn Kuslits, the president of the Rainbow center's board of directors, voiced a similar enthusiasm.

"I am very excited the board of directors chose to hire Christian," Kuslits stated. "Nobody is better at building relationships, a crucial skill needed as we pursue our strategic plan to lead with partnerships. Christian has experienced Rainbow at all levels: client, volunteer, manager, and director, and brings these perspectives to his new leadership role. His commitment to Rainbow and its mission is unmatched. I am so proud of Christian and can't wait to see him lead Rainbow as we expand to meet the needs of our community."

As the B.A.R. previously reported, the Concord City Council did not provide any funding to the center earlier this year when it doled out $7 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to nonprofits. The center, which had applied for $270,604, was not among the 22 groups selected.

Promoting visibility

Aguirre said during his tenure he wants to improve relationships in the community and promote the nonprofit's visibility.

"There are still people who don't know about Rainbow and all the work we do in the Contra Costa community and I really want to elevate all the programs we do and the great stuff we have at Rainbow with the services we provide," Aguirre said. "Services prevent isolation."

Gay Contra Costa County Supervisor Ken Carlson is a previous president of Rainbow's board; he said he hopes the county's Board of Supervisors can step up where Concord's City Council didn't, and had nothing but fond things to say of Aguirre.

"He's been at the center since I was over there as a board member," Carlson said. "It's sad in the sense that they had to go through a transition, but Christian is well suited for the job. He comes from within; he knows the programs. He has that institutional knowledge and is engaged with the people receiving services for the past decade."

When asked about the organization's top challenges he plans to address, Aguirre continued on the theme of outreach.

"For me, taking this position, I really wanted to focus on bringing the community together, focusing on marginalized communities — people of color, people with HIV, transgender and nonbinary folk, and unhoused community members in Contra Costa," Aguirre said. "That's something I want to highlight, and involve community members, to make sure they have more engagement with what we all do on the services we provide, and how we can impact them."

Aguirre also has a word about the backlash against drag performers that's led to legislation in several states.

"I think a lot of the changes that are being suggested have a broader impact with the LGBTQIA+ community, women, trans people, people of color, and also (are) not allowing for our community members to have a safe space where they can be themselves," Aguirre said. "I think [performing at drag story hour in 2019] forced me to experience some of the backlash myself, first-hand. ... I think it's also tough for the community to not feel safe or welcome at places we frequent."

Aguirre did not disclose his salary; the center's most recently available IRS Form 990 shows Johnson making $95,281 in reported compensation in Fiscal Year 2021-22. It also shows the nonprofit ran a deficit of $147,522, having taken in $1,624,379 in revenue and having expended $1,771,901.

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