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Picnics & Politics

coverwebnewAs the 40th annual Santa Cruz Pride approaches, a co-founder looks back on how one weekend turned into a local movement

In 1975, a weekend that included a potluck, workshops, music, a picnic and a giant tug of war served as the first local Pride celebration, and marked a turning point for the LGBTQ community in Santa Cruz.

Larry Friedman, who co-founded that first event, explains that it was a move, for its roughly 200 participants, out of the shadows and into the community.

“It was an exciting opportunity to show the larger Santa Cruz world, which was still very conservative at the time, that we were proud of being gay,” he says. “That I personally helped to organize this whole thing, it was very exciting to see the turnout.”

That first Pride celebration grew out of the Lesbian and Gay Men’s Union (LAGMU), a small group of Cabrillo College students and community members who formed a social group in the early 1970s. It was the first of its kind in Santa Cruz.

“All that existed at the time for gay people was a gay bar out in the sticks,” says Friedman. “Women’s lib was happening, so there were women’s groups and consciousness-raising events, but this was the first lesbian and gay thing.”

This year marks the 40th annual Santa Cruz Pride celebration. The theme is “Pride Marches On: Celebrating 40 Years of Trailblazers.” Official events include a gathering on Saturday celebrating local trailblazers, and the recipients of the first ever local LGBTQ Lifetime Achievement Awards; the Pride parade; and a street festival on Pacific Avenue featuring booths and entertainment by DJ Reb, Frootie Flavors, Meredith Kate and more. Pre- and post-event activities include the Dyke and Trans March on Saturday evening, UCSC Pride, and an afterparty at Motiv featuring DJ A.D.

cov prideFriedman and his husband Tom Ellison, the former owner of India Joze, are this year’s Pride Grand Marshals, and are being honored at the Trailblazers event. Longtime volunteers, organizers and activists on several fronts, including LGBTQ issues in the arts, Friedman and Ellison were among the first same-sex couples to be legally wed in California. They were married by the late Mardi Wormhoudt, former Santa Cruz mayor, county supervisor and committed gay rights advocate, on the first day it was legal.

This arc, from the LGBTQ community courageously announcing its presence, to seeing the emergence of gay rights, including marriage equality and the open inclusion of gays in the military, has been thrilling for Friedman.

“It’s incredible that gay people have been able to achieve the right to marry,” he says. “And gays in the military? It was inconceivable 40, 30, 20 years ago. Those are things that we thought we’d never see in our lifetime.”

But the progress has not been without a fight. As Friedman points out, at the time of the first local Pride, which was only the third Pride celebration in California, gay rights was not a mainstream political issue. Early Santa Cruz Pride participants faced harassment and hate. When, by the second or third year, the festivities included a parade, marchers had supporters on the sidelines, but they also faced hecklers and signs that said “God hates fags” and “Fags go home.”

“There were people reading the bible, and yelling at us,” says Friedman. “It was scary stuff. That happened year after year for the first five to 10 years, then became less and less of an issue. But it was frightening.”

For as much joy and excitement about how far things have come, and what a fun celebration Pride is, Friedman remembers that during the mid-1980s, Pride had a very somber air about it.

“People started dying of AIDS here in Santa Cruz around 1983 or ’84,” he says. “There were a lot of years with somberness, with marching contingents honoring our local brothers who had passed away from AIDS. It was a very heavy time for a number of years.”

Over the past four decades, Friedman has seen a number of Pride highlights and milestones. Some of them are light and fun: the first year Cheer San Francisco came to Santa Cruz, and the emergence of the Radical Fairies contingent, with their wild, in-your-face style. Others, including the open support and participation of local politicians and the first time Santa Cruz city council declared a Gay Pride Day, demonstrated significant strides made by the gay community, and Santa Cruz at large.

Looking back, Friedman says one of the most notable differences between the 1975 event and now is how many gay families are now coming out for the parade, both as audience and participants. He calls it “a noticeable change for the better.” The open participation of teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public service groups, as well as local churches, have also been welcome changes to the parade, he says.

“There weren’t church groups in those early years that were open and affirming,” Friedman explains, “and now there are so many. Between the church groups, politicians, openly gay public servants and families, all of these have set such a different tone than in the early days.”

The evolution of the Pride celebration is also a matter of numbers. This year several thousand people, from all over the San Francisco Bay area, are expected to participate. The small group of people who decided to throw a celebration in Santa Cruz to demonstrate their pride in being gay never imagined how its popularity would explode.

“Early on, there were 50 or 100 people,” says Friedman. “Now, a thousand or more are in the parade, and many more are cheering us on from the sidelines. It’s amazing how it’s changed over the years.” | Cat Johnson

Body Language

cov transBeing transgender in Santa Cruz means self-discovery—and sometimes adversity

When Vnes first visited Santa Cruz in 1992, it took her exactly two hours to decide to move here.

Vnes (pronounced “Venus”) came out of the closet two weeks later, got involved in the Dyke March as part of the Santa Cruz Pride celebration the following year, and felt welcome immediately.

“I happened to be in the best place in the world to find out I was gay,” says Vnes, who only goes by one name.

Over the next decade, the musician saw many of her friends come out as transgender, and watched many of them transform—sometimes with hormonal supplements and surgery—from one sex to another. Slowly, Vnes realized maybe she didn’t fall into the lesbian category—to the extent that there is a well-defined one—as squarely as she’d thought. “Even before I came out as gay, I identified as a liaison between genders. Ten years later, after being gay and having friends come out as transgender, I started to realize I have never been on one side or the other of anything,” Vnes says.

That was when Vnes realized she fell somewhere under what some LGBTQ activists call “the transgender umbrella,” although Vnes prefers the term “fluid” for her own gender identity.

“There’s just no wrong answer with me. I like having the door open. I totally support people who want to call themselves certain pronouns,” Vnes says. “I just try to use gender-neutral language as much as I can: ‘This person is a really amazing artist.’ Take the gender out of it.”

Term Limits

“Transgender” refers to someone who does not identify with either category in a traditional gender binary. Some transgender people might feel like men in women’s bodies or vice versa, while others may fall closer to the middle. The experiences and ways people discover they might be trans—sometimes diagnosed as gender dysphoria—vary, as do the ways people identify.

Some people choose to undergo surgery or take hormone supplements, and move from one side to the other of the gender spectrum. Others, like Vnes, don’t. Earlier this year, Facebook added 50 gender options—including androgynous, bi-gender, intersex, gender fluid and transsexual. Facebook also allows people to type in how they identify, making the options literally limitless on the social media website.

Still, coming out as transgender is fraught with complications—often extremely difficult ones. The suicide rate in the transgender community is abnormally high—41 percent of trans people attempt to take their lives, according to a study that came out in January—and prejudice can be found all over. High-profile cases, like the murder of New Yorker Islan Nettles last summer, periodically highlight the threat of violence against transgender people, particularly among those who transition from male to female, like Nettles. A young man was charged in the beating, which happened across the street from a Harlem police station, but prosecutors moved to drop the charges, due to lack of evidence.

Locally, the Diversity Center of Santa Cruz is putting together this year’s Pride celebration, which organizers hope to draw awareness to a host of LGBTQ issues, including ones affecting the transgender community—like access to healthcare, freedom from discrimination and protection from violence. “When I think about the challenges L, G and B (people) face, they’re tenfold for the transgender (or) T part of our community,” says Sharon Papo, director for the Diversity Center. “We live in a culture that has a very small box for gender normativity. Anyone who steps out of that must be very brave.”

Meanwhile Santa Cruz’s annual Dyke March, which started over two decades ago, is now the Trans Dyke March. It leaves from the Clock Tower at 4 p.m. on May 31. “We transitioned to the Dike Trans March a few years ago,” Vnes says. “It makes sense; many of the people who have been a part of the march all these years have since transitioned to being male. And the question came up: Are they still part of the march? Of course they are! Santa Cruz is very inclusive.”

Vnes plays drums for the queer-friendly group Frootie Flavors, which has one other trans member and will play three times that weekend, including at the march.

The Diversity Center holds discussion groups for transgender individuals the first and second Tuesday of every month at 7:30 p.m. There’s also a group for transgender males that meets the second and fourth Sunday of every month at 6 p.m. A new twice-monthly group, led by Sarah Collins, who began transitioning last summer, will be starting in July on the second and third Tuesday of every week for trans women in their twenties and thirties. For Collins, the reason behind the group is partly personal.

“I would love to talk to other people who are my age and tried talking to their parents,” says Collins. “Everyone has their little tips they can share with other people, whether it’s something complicated like how to talk to your parents, or something as simple as a makeup tip.”

One thing that might make life easier on transgender people is the increasing number of people giving public voices and public faces to the community. Larry Wachowski from the Wachowski Brothers, the filmmakers behind the Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta, and Cloud Atlas, came out of the closet as Lana—the Wachowski sister—in 2012 after a sex transition. Thomas James Gabel, the lead singer of Against Me!, announced she was transgender that same year and began a transition to become Laura Jane Grace. The band released Transgender Dysphoria Blues in January.

Transgender actress/activist LaVerne Cox plays a trans woman on the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. She and writer Janet Mock, a former staff editor for, have become spokespeople for trans people nationwide.  

Finally, Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley, is currently serving prison time for sharing military documents with Wikileaks, and announced her transition shortly after her sentence. Her lawyer is considering a lawsuit due to military officials’ reluctance to provide Manning sexual reassignment hormones.

Full Color

Allucquére “Sandy” Stone, a transgender woman, came out in Santa Cruz before people had many role models like Grace and Wachowski. Now living mostly in Texas, she was the only visible trans person in town at one time in the 1970s.

“It was interesting. It could be ugly, but it could also be glorious,” Stone says. “One of the reasons I chose to transition in Santa Cruz was that I anticipated that Santa Cruz would be possibly more supportive than, say, Dubuque or Toledo, and I turned out to be correct. I felt very much at home and nurtured by the women’s community of Santa Cruz.”

At times, though, radical feminists and other fringes among the women’s rights activists have questioned her womanhood, she says, and Stone did have to overcome notions that she brought a perspective of male privilege to women’s issues.

Now in her seventies, she says the biggest issues facing the trans community today are ensuring equal status for transgender people, protection and enforcement under such laws and recognition for trans people of color.

Progress is slow, but continuing. California became the first state last year to allow school children to decide which bathroom feels more comfortable for them.

Although California has laws preventing discrimination against trans people, many people still face discrimination in their work, housing searches and their everyday lives. Many people in the community are also low-income: trans people are four times as likely to live in poverty, compared with the general population, according to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

At the same time, some transgender activists are trying to push new boundaries of identification, and want to assume and encourage gender-neutral pronouns—“zhe” or “they” to name a couple.

With so many issues and so many perspectives, the whole movement seems divided at times. Sometimes, Stone says, radical trans activists quarrel with certain groups similar to how certain radicals tried to discredit her in the women’s movement 30 years ago.

“The transgender movement—socially, politically, culturally in every possible way—is growing everyday, and it’s growing exponentially right now,” says Stone, who will be coming back to Santa Cruz for Pride. She’s optimistic about the different perspectives. “I don’t think any one person can keep track on a day-to-day basis of what’s happening. We’ve gotten so big now that it’s no longer possible to talk about transgender in any monolithic way. Now we’ve got factions!”

The umbrella, Stone says, will only have to get bigger.

“Make the umbrella large enough that everyone can fit under it, and everyone can have an individual point. And then everyone can celebrate their differences,” she says. “Everyone can also celebrate that they’re all flowers on this huge bushel called transgender.” | Jacob Pierce

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