The holidays can be stressful. The long lines at the store, getting the perfect gift for your loved one and even planning a get-together can seem daunting. Having a moment to decompress with people that get you and you feel safe around is important.
At dusk on Tuesday, Dec. 21, the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center came alive with karaoke singers taking turns at the microphone.
“Make sure you sign in,” said Catie Heaps, coordinator of the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center Holiday Bonanza and Open Mic Night, her voice ringing out over the sound system to the crowd of more than 30 people who showed up to share their favorite potluck dish
“We get grants based on the sign-in sheet demographic information like location, age and gender identity. The more people that participate, the better our chances for higher grants to serve the people reflected in those demographics,” Heaps explains about their announcement.
At 20 years old, Catie is a newly arrived Northern California transplant. In May 2021, they fatefully arrived at the LGBT Center as a support group meeting was taking place and was invited to stay. “I immediately felt a sense of belonging,” they say, “and I stayed for the meeting afterwards to start planning ‘The Pumpkin Ball’ for that fall and I have been volunteering ever since.”
The Holiday Bonanza and Open Mic Night is the brainchild of the young avid reader who saw a need for an inclusive social group for any member of the LGBTQIA community. Catie fondly remembered the first support group she went to in her hometown and describes a hangout where LGBTQIA youths could just talk, play games, and basically socialize.
“I wanted that here for myself and also because I knew it was likely someone in this county was looking for something like that to feel part of the community,” they said.
Rosa Diaz (she/her), the LGBT Center director, was happy to supply the space in the center to create, “Safe Space,” a casual support group for all LGBTQIA people. Safe Space meets monthly at the center and is unique from the other support groups because it tries to create a casual environment for interaction. Among the planned events for the social group are game, movie and bingo nights.
Historically marginalized, LGBTQIA youths in the Imperial Valley can sometimes have no other choice than to turn to the resources a safe space like the center can provide. Even during the holidays, when the spirit of love, compassion and giving abounds, violence against queer people does not disappear.
Nearing the end of 2021, according to Human Right Campaign, “at least 50 transgender or gender non-conforming people (have been) fatally shot or killed by other violent means. We say at least because too often these stories go unreported — or misreported.”
In May 2021, in Niland, a trans man was found murdered. His name was Poe Black. In 2020 in Brawley, a young beloved trans woman, Marilyn Monroe Cazares, was also killed violently. Both crimes remain unsolved.
Our home in the desert does not quarantine us from this violence. Safe spaces for people who are threatened with terminal violence for existing in their gender identity are crucial to keeping stasis in our fragile communities.
The holidays can offer an opportunity for self-reflection, I am no different. As a writer I struggle to determine just how vulnerable to be in my writing for fear of alienating potential readers. But as a middle-aged queer nonbinary person, I am personally buoyed with the true, loving, spirit of the holidays at the sight of my peers enjoying themselves in safe spaces like the Holiday Bonanza.
This event and many others are available to the entire community, a new reality for queer youths of the Imperial Valley. “The No. 1 reason we are out here doing this is because we have resources and we want to use them to serve our community,” Heaps said, “whether they’re LGBT or not.”
Clara Olivas is a writer, performer and comedian from Calexico, who had worked for the Calexico Unified School District for more than 20 years. They have written for the Calexico Chronicle for more than three months.