Half Moon Bay welcomes LGBTQ center

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 23, 2021
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Local young adults who hang out at the CoastPride Community Center include, from left, Novak Chernesky, Joe Torrey, Emily Cooke, Corwin Jones, Jessie Hedger-Walter, Maggie Stack, Gwina Putz, and Bella Forth. Photo: CoastPride Center
Local young adults who hang out at the CoastPride Community Center include, from left, Novak Chernesky, Joe Torrey, Emily Cooke, Corwin Jones, Jessie Hedger-Walter, Maggie Stack, Gwina Putz, and Bella Forth. Photo: CoastPride Center

Half Moon Bay is now home to the newest LGBTQ community center in the Bay Area, fostering connections for coastal San Mateo County residents from Pacifica to Pescadero. The CoastPride Community Center officially opened its doors in a two-story building on the city's main corridor June 1 at the start of Pride Month.

It joins the San Mateo County Pride Center in providing services to LGBTQ residents on the Peninsula. And it means the county is now one of two in the Bay Area with multiple LGBTQ centers, as there are also two operating across the bay in Alameda County.

Having the CoastPride center now in operation will make it easier for coastal LGBTQ San Mateo County residents to gather for activities and access certain social and health services, contend its supporters. It can be a trek to visit the San Mateo center "over the hills," as locals refer to the northern most section of the Santa Cruz Mountain range they have to drive over to reach the county's bayside cities.

"That location on Main Street is insane. I saw it and thought 'how did we get here?'" recalled Half Moon Bay resident Isabella "Bella" Forth, 18, who identifies as queer and helps run a Dungeons and Dragons game that attracts other queer local youth and young adults. "I know a lot of people have been working for this for a long time. It was just super meaningful to the community and my friend group. A lot of my friends' moms were involved, and I heard them talking about it for a long time."

The center's location at 711 Main Street is easily walkable from most anywhere in Half Moon Bay and is accessible by car or public transit for residents outside the city. The impact of the new center has been immediate, said Cameron Zeller, 29, a resident of nearby El Granada who has been volunteering with the CoastPride group for about six months.

"It is definitely increasing visibility for queer people in this area," said Zeller, who is queer, transgender, and nonbinary. "They did a great job decorating the space. The main thing is I hope it enables queer people to find the community they need and the support they need."

Zeller, a Napa native, has lived in the area since last July. They and their partner, Demi Pacifuentes, a queer woman, recently met a gay couple who live a few doors from them because one of the men noticed the CoastPride sweatshirt Pacifuentes was wearing while out on a walk and struck up a conversation.

"I hope to meet a lot more queer people through the CoastPride center," said Zeller. "Already, by volunteering there, I have met other folks."

For Espiridion Lopez, 45, walking through the doors of the CoastPride center, with a Progress Pride flag fluttering in the wind from its front porch, has enabled him to connect with other LGBTQ people in the area he has called home for close to a quarter century. Originally from Nayarit, Mexico, Lopez is not fluent in English but has already met several people through the center who are Spanish speakers.

Speaking with the Bay Area Reporter through a translator, Lopez said he became a member of CoastPride because "every time he went there, he felt very comfortable and had a lot of fun over there. The moment he identified himself as gay, he felt very comfortable."

A vase of flowers and a hat welcome visitors to the CoastPride Community Center. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

Feels like home
The center now feels like home, said Lopez, who works in the local restaurant industry. He said he was "feeling very lonely before" while now he has friends and he "feels part of CoastPride so he feels it is like he is at home."

Because of the center Lopez has been opening up more about his sexual orientation. Prior to becoming a member Lopez said he was "feeling a little bit ashamed" and now he truly "feels more comfortable saying he is openly gay. He feels very open about it, and the moment he goes to CoastPride and he sees the flag, he feels at home."

It is what the founding members of CoastPride have been striving for since they first came together in 2019 to form a group that could host its own events in the area so LGBTQ residents didn't need to travel over the hill to San Mateo, San Jose, or San Francisco to find community. They quickly were able to not just start offering activities but also rally the local community to celebrate its LGBTQ residents.

That year, their library raised the rainbow flag in June and the local school district observed October as LGBTQ History Month. Since last June Half Moon Bay officials have flown a Pride flag in front of their City Hall, with its neighboring cities following suit this Pride Month in response to the county's LGBTQ commission asking all of the cities and towns in the jurisdiction to raise a pride flag this month.

When Jenny Walter, 61, who is bisexual, and her wife, Deb Hedger, 60, first moved to Half Moon Bay 20 years ago, it was inconceivable to the couple that there would be an LGBTQ center in their new hometown, where they raised their daughter, Jessie, who is now 18.

"Not without a lot of work," said Walter, who would go on to co-chair the county's LGBTQ commission.

It was a needs assessment that the county was conducting to better serve LGBTQ coastal residents that led to the formation of CoastPride. Early on its leaders focused their attention to opening a dedicated space to hold its meetings and offer services.

They were able to negotiate a three-year lease at a discounted rent with an option to renew with the owner of the 13,700 square foot two-story building. Built in 1933 it includes a small kitchen area and a second floor room big enough to act as a conference room. Several smaller rooms are being rented out to a married female couple who provide counseling services to both adults and youth.

CoastPride is operating with a $55,000 yearly budget but has set a goal of raising $75,000 this year. According to its website it has surpassed the 50% mark and raised more than $42,500 so far, with the city of Half Moon Bay allocating $5,000 toward the center.

It is now seeking financial support from San Mateo County. Supervisor Don Horsley, whose District 3 includes the coastal area, has pledged his support to secure funding for the CoastPride center. It hopes to see the Board of Supervisors sign off on $35,000 for it in the fiscal year 2021-2022 budget; Horsley could not be reached for comment.

Real estate agent David Oliphant, 58, has lived in Half Moon Bay for more than a decade with his husband, choreographer Christopher Childers, 56, who is opening up a costume shop on Main Street this weekend with a launch party to raise funds for the new center. It is important that there be services easily reachable, said Oliphant, for the county's coastal LGBTQ community.

The CoastPride Community Center found a prominent home in downtown Half Moon Bay. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

"While there are great resources in San Francisco and San Mateo, we just didn't have that on the coast," said Oliphant, one of the founding members of CoastPride. "Many of the people who will use this building can't drive over the hills or maybe won't."

The center is already attracting local LGBTQ residents looking for services or just a place to hang out. In its main room on the first floor is a seating area where people can play board games, read a book, or just relax. In the adjoining room is a table for people to play table tennis or air hockey.

And for those yet to come out of the closet or uncomfortable walking through the front door, there is a rear entrance off the small parking lot in the back of the building.

Zeller is working to provide more engagement for area youth at the CoastPride center. The aim is to provide intergenerational leadership at the facility.

"The long-term goal is to have a group of five or so young people who would help lead the effort to make sure CoastPride has relevant and effective programming for young queer people on the coast," they said. "What people have said is it definitely helps to have a space where teens want to come hang out at."

A youth group for people under the age of 18 meets from 3:30 to 5 p.m. the first and third Thursdays of the month. Another group for coastside parents and caregivers of LGBTQ+ youth and adults meets from 6 to 7 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of the month.

The center is also bringing in a mobile van to provide HIV testing and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases. It provides referrals for other services and will be ramping up its on-site offerings in the coming months.

"The main thing is I hope it enables queer people to find the community they need and the support they need," said Zeller. "It helps queer people, particularly in this rural area, find resources more easily, whether health care and mental health care, so that they don't feel like they are alone in finding those things."

CoastPride organizers also recognize there is a need to translate their materials into Spanish to be more inclusive and reach non-English speaking members of the local LGBTQ community. Lopez seconded that need for translated materials so more Spanish-speakers will know not only what CoastPride has to offer but that it is welcoming to them.

Of course, things can get lost in translation, as Lopez said happened to him last weekend when he attended a virtual movie night CoastPride held not realizing attendees were to come in their cars.

Instead, he said he "came walking" to the film screening because he had "missed the part" he was supposed to be in his vehicle. He was still able to stay and enjoy the movie, but Lopez said it is important for the center to translate its pamphlets and other informational guides "so everyone can know about these activities."

The center is currently open from 2 to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays. To learn more about CoastPride, and the activities and services it is offering at its community center, click here.

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