Oakland City Council OKs LGBTQ cultural district

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday November 8, 2023
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Drag queen Vicki Sparkle Titz performs to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" outside the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center Tuesday. Photo: Cynthia Laird
Drag queen Vicki Sparkle Titz performs to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" outside the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center Tuesday. Photo: Cynthia Laird

At a joyous news conference outside the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center Tuesday morning, drag queen Vicki Sparkle Titz wowed the crowd by lip-synching and dancing to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" before the Oakland Gay Men's Chorus performed "Seasons of Love" from the Broadway smash "Rent." It was all part of a celebration ahead of the Oakland City Council approving the first LGBTQ cultural district in the city, which it did at its meeting November 7.

The Lakeshore LGBTQ Cultural District is anchored by the community center on Lakeshore Avenue, and encompasses parts of the Lakeshore and Grand neighborhoods. Brandon Harami, a gay man who's director of community resilience for Mayor Sheng Thao and her de facto LGBTQ liaison, said there are about a dozen businesses within the district's boundaries that are LGBTQ-owned. (None of the business owners spoke at the event.)

At the City Council meeting, the resolution passed 7-0. (Councilmember Treva Reid had an excused absence.) District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb, who attended the kickoff, said he was "very thrilled to be one of the co-sponsors." (Kalb is running for the open District 7 state Senate seat in the March primary.)

In fact, four councilmembers represent parts of all of the district: Kalb; Rebecca Kaplan, a lesbian who represents the entire city; Carroll Fife of District 3, and Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas of District 2.

At the kickoff, Kaplan told the Bay Area Reporter that the district is decades in the making.

"I am so proud of being part of making this district happen," Kaplan said in a brief interview. "It's an acknowledgement of a community presence that's been here for a long time."

She recounted how years ago the old Oakland Pride organization used to have its festival by Lake Merritt, and the old Sistahs Steppin' in Pride held their event near the lake as well.

Fife, an ally, said she was honored to be at the event. Her council district is centered in West Oakland and parts of downtown.

"It's the second official cultural district in Oakland," Fife told the B.A.R., noting the city's first cultural district is the Black Arts Movement Business District.

Fife added that the LGBTQ cultural district is needed to counter the right-wing attacks coming from conservative Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Supreme Court. The conservative super-majority on the court earlier this year ruled that a website designer has free speech rights and does not have to make wedding websites for same-sex couples.

"It's all connected," Fife said. "I have friends in Texas who have to bring their children here for gender-affirming care."

A ban on such care for trans youth in the Lone Star State went into effect earlier this year. Gay California Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) last year authored legislation signed by Governor Gavin Newsom that designates the Golden State as a refuge for trans kids and their families, as the B.A.R. previously reported. (https://www.ebar.com/story.php?319390)

Elected officials and LGBTQ community center staff gathered to announce the formation of the city's first LGBTQ Cultural District at a Tuesday news conference. Photo: Cynthia Laird  

Emceeing the news conference was Oakland resident Amy Schneider, a trans woman who gained a national following after her championship run on TV game show "Jeopardy!" two years ago. She is the author of her recent memoir, "In the Form of a Question."

"I'm proud to call Oakland my home and I owe this town so much," she said.

Jeff Myers and Joe Hawkins, gay Black men who are co-founders of the community center, praised the formation of the cultural district. For now, the center will serve as the district's fiscal sponsor, they said.

"We have a lot of work to do," said Hawkins. "This is just the beginning. In my mind, the whole lake is an LGBTQ cultural district.

"For people of color, Oakland has always been a refuge," he added.

Thao, an ally who began her public service career by working as an aide for Kaplan, said she was involved with the community center since it opened in 2017.

"Our LGBTQ community is seeing constant threats and is not safe everywhere," Thao said.

While plans call for a flagpole outside the center with a Progress Pride flag to denote the cultural district, Thao said it's about more than that.

"It's also about programming, like access to health care" and addressing housing insecurity, she said.

Amin Robinson, youth services coordinator at the LGBTQ center's Town Youth Club just a short walk away from the center, said that the cultural district empowers him as a queer Black youth.

Karen Anderson, a Black lesbian senior, told the B.A.R. she was excited by the turnout. During her remarks, Anderson said the cultural district's formation is important for youth and seniors.

"We've gone through the AIDS crisis, we've gone through the mpox crisis, and we've gone through the COVID crisis but we're still here," she said. "We've been isolated from our families and sometimes our friends and we're still standing. We no longer have to concern ourselves with being out of the closet. There is no closet."

Bas said one goal behind its creation is to make sure the city's queer community is represented. She pointed out the community center stepped up during COVID to provide vaccinations and assistance for those facing homelessness.

Assemblymember Mia Bonta (D-Oakland) was one of several speakers who pointed out Oakland has one of the highest concentrations of LGBTQ people in the country.

"The fight continues," Bonta said. "Resist homophobia, hate, and discrimination and the extreme conservative legislative efforts across the nation. We've allowed that to seep into California counties, particularly around trans youth. We're for protecting and celebrating the LGBTQ community."

Bonta was referring to actions by several conservative-led school boards that have adopted policies that would forcibly out trans and gender-nonconforming students to their parents without their consent. (Her husband, state Attorney General Rob Bonta, is suing one of the districts and recently won a preliminary injunction halting two main parts of the policy — the requirements that staff out students for identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming, as well as for accessing sex-segregated programs and activities that align with their gender.)

Additionally, as the B.A.R. first reported online last week, backers of three anti-trans ballot measures were cleared by the secretary of state's office to begin gathering signatures in the hopes of placing them on the November 2024 ballot. One of them would require forced outing of trans students. The others would prohibit trans students from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity and prohibit gender-affirming care for minors.

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