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LGBTQ group making ‘connections’ in Sonoma

The curse of childhood is being different somehow: too tall, too brainy, not ordinary enough. Kids want to blend, they want to belong. Being tagged as an outsider can be punishingly hard.

For LGBTQ kids, being different can be especially tough. With heterosexuality the predominant cultural norm, it’s easy for homophobia to take root. Homophobia grants permission for bullies to do what they do: ridicule in the lunchroom, taunt on the playground and, in the worst cases, even deploy physical violence.

Growing up isn’t easy for anyone, but growing up outside the constraints of the normative sexual and gender identity spectrum is perhaps even harder.

Which is why LGBTQ Connection has come to town.

The group’s mission is to drive culture change while growing a movement to support LGBTQ people – and they’re doing it one conversation at a time.

“I hear from kids all the time that this program literally saved their life,” said program coordinator Eliseo Rivas, who has developed LGBTQ Connection’s program in other cities. “The amount of isolation and rejection is enormous. Even though Sonoma is only an hour outside of San Francisco, it doesn’t mean it’s a welcoming place for LGBTQ people.”

Program manager Jessie Hankins agrees, and goes further. Self-acceptance, she said, is really ground zero, and can be even more difficult than declaration of a public identity. “The first person you have to come out to is yourself. I came out relatively late, only about five years ago,” Hankins, who is in her late 20s, said. “I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, where there weren’t many people like me.”

“For a lot of people,” Rivas adds, “this process is excruciating. It’s never a question of if they need help. It’s always a matter of when. We want to hold a responsible safe place for people to grow.”

One of the only comprehensive LGBTQ programs in the North Bay, LGBTQ Connection has developed strategies to drive culture change and grow a movement, while supporting LGBTQ people who feel marginalized. It runs established programs in Napa and Santa Rosa, and is getting its Sonoma program off the ground.

Like most big ideas that aspire to change culture, progress is slow. They’ve launched a youth leadership team and are holding bimonthly support groups. And they’re looking for permanent quarters in town to set up shop, a place where LGBTQ people can find gentle support.

They’ve also scheduled a dance party for LGBTQ kids and the people who love them to come together and simply have fun. It’s called “Love is Love” and is scheduled for Feb. 24, with two decoration-making events in advance on Feb. 8 and 22.

“I was talking to this young trans woman, and she said ‘Where’s the LGBTQ at? Where’s the fun?’” Rivas said, explaining the origins of the concept behind his big fat queer prom. “These kids feel like the Valley isn’t for them, that it feels really stuffy.” With an exuberant fashion sense and an irrepressible joy, Rivas seems ready to correct that misperception.

Do you have to be queer or transgender to attend “Love is Love”?

“We don’t expect people to give us their gay card,” Rivas said, eye-roll nearly audible, even over the phone. “Maybe a kid is gay, or lesbian, or trans. Maybe a kid is non-binary. Maybe it’s the best friend of a questioning kid. They’re all welcome. We just want to give them a place to have fun!”

LGBTQ Connection is funded in part by the Office of Health Equity within the state Department of Public Health, but welcomes public support of its programs. “We’re always looking for support with events and trainings, food donations for our youth meetings, and volunteers to help behind the scenes,” Rivas said.

In March, the program is providing a free training for members of the community who seek greater understanding of the LGBTQ individuals living within it.

“Maybe they’re afraid that they’ll not be PC, or say something wrong to someone they care about,” Rivas said. “It’s all part of the journey. We want to let people know that the group is growing, to say come one, come all, and we love you.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.