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Involvement in the community brings great change

By Ben Cartwright

San Diegans are lucky as we get to experience the nationwide celebration of Pride in June, and also locally in July. Hillcrest and surrounding neighborhoods in San Diego come alive as we celebrate San Diego Pride month! As Pride approaches this year, I’m reflecting on my 20-years of involvement with the celebration, and the leadership development that brought me to where I am today.

In 1998, when I first volunteered for the San Diego Pride, our community was in a different place. The real life-and-death scare of AIDS was just starting to dissipate after haunting our community for most of the 80s and 90s. The military was living under its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. No state had yet legalized same-sex marriage. Matthew Shepard’s murder happened later that year, and many of our LGBT community organizations did not even include the B and the T in their titles (Pride was “San Diego Gay & Lesbian Pride” at the time; and The Center was still called The San Diego Lesbian & Gay Men’s Center). It was even a crime in the city of San Diego to “crossdress” until that year (although rarely enforced by the 1990s).

Our community was in a constant state of reaction, and we have so many leaders who came before, many who are still active today, to thank for this work. Being 18 years old at the time, I wanted nothing more than to be involved with the community. I admired from afar many of the community leaders who I saw at the time in the various gay press and at events and wanted one day to be like them. I wanted to stand up for what was right, make change, and inspire my fellow community members to get involved. But I didn’t exactly know how to do it.

At that time, local programs for LGBT youth were very limited. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that The Center’s Hillcrest Youth Center opened, and there weren’t really any services that focused specifically on youth. There was a weekly meeting at The Center called “Gay Youth Alliance” that was attended by many but that wasn’t necessarily enough. Even our local universities were mostly lacking services to their LGBT students at the time, too. In fact, when I got to San Diego State University as a freshman that year, the only thing that existed for LGBT students was the LGBT Student Union, which had about five members at the time.

Despite these challenges, those who were growing up at the time, were coming out into an exciting gay world that had come a long way since the Stonewall Riots put the LGBT civil rights movement in the forefront of the public’s attention 30 years earlier. Gay neighborhoods like Hillcrest were thriving, Pride events around the globe were getting bigger and bigger, and we were beginning to see more and more LGBT people in the media after Ellen DeGeneres’ very public coming out in 1997. And many of us youth wanted to have a pivotal part of that movement.

But we lacked mentorship. For one, we lost a very big part of a generation of men before us to AIDS. The community was still catching up from being in crisis mode for nearly two decades and thinking about the next generation of leadership wasn’t really at the forefront of its mindset. There were many youths who were involved with the community — I know many of them personally. But we struggled to have our voices heard. We wanted safe spaces to congregate, organize, and learn, but it wasn’t a community priority. And being youth, we didn’t have the resources or knowledge to get what we wanted. But we persisted and many of us continued to speak up and there were some amazing adults in the community who heard us.

In 2000, The Center and some visionary community members opened the Hillcrest Youth Center. This space, originally on Fourth Avenue in Hillcrest, was an incredible addition to the community for youth. It provided a structured, safe, fun space for LGBT youth to meet, hang out, and connect to resources if needed. With the opening of the HYC, it felt like our youth were finally considered to be valuable members of our community. But it wasn’t just providing a space for us, we wanted our voices to be heard and have a place at the table. It took a few more years, but finally in 2009, The Center, under the leadership and vision of Dr. Delores Jacobs, who recently left the organization, created the Young Professionals Council (YPC).

Jacobs, whose 17-year term as The Center’s CEO ended last week, was honored on Friday, June 22, at a special celebration attended by hundreds of community members. Of all of Jacobs’ numerous accomplishments over the years, one that particularly stands out is the creation of the YPC. This program, which provides leadership development, networking, and social opportunities for young community members aged 21-40, expanded in 2012 to include the YPC Academy. Seven classes have now graduated the program, with an alumni list of over 150 community members. Now working at The Center, I’ve had the honor of being one of the staff liaisons to this program since 2014 and have had the opportunity to interact with all of the graduates of the program. The community is truly investing in the younger generation now and equipping them with the tools to lead today and into the future.

Being 38 years old, I’m in an interesting point in life. I’m not necessarily a young community member anymore, but I also still have so much ahead of me and more to learn. It’s really exciting to see an incredibly engaged group of people younger than me willing to step up and get involved and help lead our community. It seemed like just 10 years ago, it was really hard to get anyone young to be involved. Maybe it was because no one was asking, or maybe it was just a different time, but today, it’s exciting to see our “millennials” really get involved. I’ve become a mentor to many, and do my best to guide, lead, and most importantly, step aside when folks younger than me want to step up.

Benny Cartwright (Photo by Rob Lucas Modern Aperture Photography)

It’s an exciting time for our community and I hope that this year at Pride, we can all celebrate those younger than us and the contributions they have and will make to our community. We are always going to need new leadership and a good leader lets others learn and lead! I’m happy to be a part of this process in our community.

Happy Pride!

—Benny Cartwright is the director of community outreach at the San Diego LGBT Community Center. He can be reached at 619-692-2077 ext. 106 or outreach@thecentersd.org.

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