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'If others can exist, so can you': Finding trans community around the Monterey Bay

A trans flag hangs in the window of an office filled with tchtotchkes, including a disco ball hanging from the ceiling and a printer. A bookcase filled with LGBTQ+ literature sits on the right side of the office, with a rainbow figurine that says "READ" atop it.
Janelle Salanga
The office for Our Gente staff members at The Epicenter in Salinas on March 21, 2024. Our Gente is the organization's LGBTQ+ services and programming arm.

Deacon Ruiz grew up in Greenfield. He wasn’t the first person to come out as queer in his family.

But he was the first to come out as trans.

“When I was younger, I did not want to exist as a trans person,” Ruiz said. “And I think the biggest reason is because I saw a lot of hate, I saw the anti-trans legislation that was being passed at the time.”

LGBTQ+ book bans, policies that would out students to parents without their consent, and efforts to restrict gender-affirming healthcare are among over 530 anti-trans bills introduced this year alone. That’s despite numerous medical organizations supporting gender-affirming care.

Ruiz says the message the legislation sends is that “they don't want to see you walking down the street, they don't want to, at all, see you anywhere. They don't want to acknowledge that you exist.”

Four people, two Latino women, one nonbinary person and one man, stand in front of the trans flag hanging in the window.
Janelle Salanga
Epicenter workers (from left to right) Nohemi De La Cruz, Sahani Lopez, Angela Soto Cerros and Deacon Ruiz stand outside the center on March 21, 2024. De La Cruz, Lopez and Ruiz volunteer with the Queer and Trans Youth Leadership Collective, and Soto Cerros is a Epicenter staff member through Our Gente.

For over a month, Ruiz has been volunteering at The Epicenter in Salinas as part of the Queer and Trans Youth Leadership Collective. He organizes workshops and provides the support he wishes he had as a younger trans person, showing trans youth their existence matters.

On the eve of the 15th annual Trans Day of Visibility, Ruiz said he thinks visibility means “getting everyone to know that there's people that you might not think are trans … that they exist, showing that they’re here.”

There are two major days recognizing trans people: The first is Trans Day of Remembrance, which was established on Nov. 20, 1998 to memorialize and grieve those killed due to transphobia, and Trans Day of Visibility. The latter falls on March 31st. Rachel Crandall, a member of Transgender Michigan, founded the day in 2009 to honor trans life outside of the context of death.

While it was intended to be a celebration, Ruiz and others in the Monterey Bay region say the day, and local trans existence, holds multitudes.

Epicenter provides diverse, reflective trans community cornerstone

The Epicenter is out and proud in its support for LGBTQ+ youth.

Flashes of blue, pink and white — the trans flag hanging in the Epicenter’s window — are visible from a stroll down Salinas’s South Main Street. Its spruce green exterior is a prelude to bursts of color indoors: LGBTQ+ decor and art, along with posters and flyers providing information to local resources, are plastered along the center’s walls.

Posters that read "The Epicenter Youth Council" and "Our Gente" are on the walls of The Epicenter's reception area, along with other art. Two bookcase sits underneath the posters. The Our Gente poster features a rainbow fist.
Janelle Salanga
The reception area of The Epicenter and Our Gente on March 21, 2024.

The center primarily serves at-risk and marginalized youth between the ages of 16 and 24. It houses an LGBTQ+ library stocked with varied genres of literature, a plethora of different crafting supplies — including a 3D printer — and a kitchen with a free food pantry.

And through Our Gente, its LGBTQ+ services branch, The Epicenter regularly hosts events, drop-in hours, resource information sessions and rotating groups for queer and trans youth.

Ruiz said he’s grateful for Our Gente’s expansive programming.

“The programs that we did have [in Greenfield] were just clubs, so they're very small,” he said. “I had to do all the research [on supportive programs] myself. So it means a lot to me that I get this, but I wish I had it sooner.”

Long-time Monterey resident Barbara, who asked to go only by her first name for privacy, is among those who found a community by volunteering at The Epicenter. She developed the Monterey County Trans and Queer Survival Guide earlier this year.

The guide initially focused on gender-affirming healthcare providers, but after volunteering at the Epicenter, Barbara said she chose to expand the guide’s focus.

“I realized I wanted to include places like The Epicenter in my guide because what they provided was a very important resource for folks like me,” she said. “Having a supportive community is a really important part of transitioning. Because it's not just a physical transition. It's a social and a mental one as well.”

Angela Soto-Cerros helped Barbara with her guide, and is a staff member at Our Gente.

For them, Trans Day of Visibility is a reminder to celebrate the growing number of trans people of color in media: “You’re Hispanic, and you’re queer — it's actually really comforting, just being able to see people be and who are like me, it really heals my inner child.”

And the center is important, they added, because it makes that same community visible daily: Monterey County is predominantly Latino, as are many of the youth and volunteers who come to the center.

There are several Pride organizations across the peninsula, including the surrounding Salinas and Pajaro valleys. But Our Gente is distinct in its particular focus on having programming by and for marginalized youth.

“One major part is just being able to connect with others, be with others, having that proof that the community is there, and that it will be there,” Soto-Cerros said. “And if others can exist, then so can you.”

Historic campus shifts at CSU Monterey Bay

The Epicenter is part of a long history of trans and queer people building community around the Monterey Bay.

Long-time CSU Monterey Bay professor David Reichard teaches history and legal studies. He was one of the advisors to the campus’s first LGBTQ+ student group after arriving on campus in 1999.

“The activism of those students has been very responsive to the specifics of the time — for example, in 2000, when California was considering an anti-gay marriage proposition on the ballot, the students here really organized around that,” he said. “I remember tabling with them in the front of the post office. We had events on campus.”

Still, he recalled, not every LGBTQ+ student was gung-ho about public organizing.

“Some of the first group of students that I worked with in that [first iteration of the] club really didn't want to be public,” he said. “So we met in my office, because it had no windows.”

But he’s seen the campus shift over the past 25 years, citing drag shows in the fall and CSU Monterey Bay’s Rainbow Graduation ceremony, which Reichard said hosted “a record number of students this year.”

“That’s a very public, visible event,” he said. “I mean, it’s amazing.”

A closed tan door with a window in between a room number placard that reads 150 and a cork board showing some event posters. The window shows the light off in the room.
Janelle Salanga
The Rainbow Raft Pride Center will be located in the Otter Student Center on the CSU Monterey Bay campus. As of March 21, 2024, it was furnished sparsely. Reichard said "it's nothing like it's going to look, I'm hoping."

The Rainbow Raft Pride Center, which formalizes resources and creates a dedicated space for LGBTQ+ students, is set to open in May, and Reichard is working with students and staff to get the center going.

Part of its work creating visibility will be connecting students to the legacy of trans and queer organizing on the CSU Monterey Bay campus.

“We have a plan to put a wall of CSUMB queer history here in the center, with images and photographs and documents,” Reichard said. “So students who come into the center know that they're standing on the shoulders of a whole generation of students who organized before them.”

The number of queer student organizations on campus is growing, too. A chapter of Out in STEM, or OSTEM for short, launched this school year.

“Ask anybody in the STEM majors here at CSUMB — they'll tell you it's full of LGBTQ+ people,” said Miles Shelter, OSTEM’s vice president.

When he thinks about Trans Day of Visibility, he thinks about building strong relationships — especially as a crucial part of being out in STEM and in general.

“When you're visible, you're more likely to be targeted by people who may disagree with your identity,” Shelter said. “And one of the measures that you can use to protect against that is your community.”

Grief intertwined with companionship, community

In 2021, the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on ending LGBTQ+ suicides, found trans and nonbinary students face the highest rates of bullying compared to their peers in middle and high schools. That experience is even more common for Indigenous students.

Several local organizations, including OSTEM, held vigils to honor Oklahoma high schooler Nex Benedict’s life after constant gender-related bullying played a factor in his suicide last month.

He was sixteen, of Choctaw descent and gender non-conforming.

“I’m originally from Oklahoma, and I also have several members of my own family who are trans still in Oklahoma,” said OSTEM treasurer Ava Johnston. “When I first saw this story, I literally just cried for an hour. In Nex, I saw my family members. I see people who I’ve been close to and who I love in them.”

OSTEM president Jacque McKay remembers one specific sentence from writing Benedict’s memorial.

“‘He liked Minecraft and their cat.’ That sentence haunts me, it sits with me,” they said. “Because this is a whole child. This is a whole person who isn't respected.”

Fatal violence against trans people is compounded by racism and anti-Blackness. The Human Rights Campaign reported that 50% of the at least 32 deaths associated with transphobic violence last year were Black trans women.

Deadly manifestations of transphobia and structural oppression mean that for Epicenter volunteer and Salinas resident Sahani Lopez, Trans Day of Visibility is also a day to mourn.

“Whenever the day comes up, I always think about my Black and brown trans sisters that are dying left and right,” Lopez said.

But, she added, it’s also a reminder of the strength of community bonds.

“Seeing how many people like, say something about it, it goes to show … there is people that care. And that's what makes it so special to me.”

If you or a queer or trans person you know is in crisis, you can reach the following resources for support.

  • Trans Lifeline: Call 877-565-8860
    • Open 24/7
    • Geared towards providing support for trans people from trained trans volunteers
    • Provides support in English and Spanish
  • Blackline: Call or text 800-604-5841
    • Open 24/7 
    • Geared towards providing support for BIPOC and queer BIPOC
    • Provides support in English only

CSU Monterey Bay holds the FCC license for 90.3 KAZU. The station is located on the university’s campus.

Janelle Salanga is a reporter for KAZU. Prior to joining the station, they covered Sacramento communities and helped start the SacramenKnow newsletter at CapRadio.
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