On Oct. 11, Gary Byrne, president of the Community Foundation of San Benito County, found himself searching for a light—one that could only be found by walking out through a rainbow-colored door.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Byrne said of the National Coming Out Day celebration at Pajaro Valley High School in Watsonville he attended. The day was founded in 1988 and is celebrated on Oct.11 to mark the anniversary of the second major march on Washington for lesbian and gay rights, which took place 1987.
Byrne said that a student-made tunnel, attached to a rainbow colored door—representing the coming out process of the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) community—was the focal point during Pajaro Valley’s lunch hour event. Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra, faculty, staff and students of PVHS were all present. Byrne said approximately 800 people were gathered.
The turnout to support those who chose to come out on that day surprised Byrne.
“I thought maybe 30 kids would show up,” he said.
“The whole idea was if you were a kid and wanted to come out, you were welcome to,” Byrne explained. “But if you’re not gay, and you wanted to be supportive, you announced yourself and came through the door, too. So I did that, and some of the teachers did that.”
Byrne was so moved by the experience that he is in the process of bringing the Community Foundation, San Benito High School and Hollister’s Esperanza Center together to mark National Coming Out Day at SBHS in 2022.
“We’re hoping we’ll be able to bring it to our high school and that they are open to it,” he said.
BenitoLink reached out multiple times to Rebecca Conklin, the activity director of SBHS’s Gay-Straight Allliances Club, but did not receive a response.
The Esperanza Center, which is dedicated to supporting people ages 14-21, was made possible through a partnership between Community Solutions, San Benito County Health and Human Services and Behavioral Health. The center is a multi-purpose location which also provides services and support for LGBTQIA youth with its San Benito + group. Led by peer mentors, San Benito + members are 14-25 years old.
Gutierrez said he regrets not doing something this year for National Coming Out Day, despite the uncertainty of COVID-19.
“It sounds really good,” he said. “I would love to be able to work with Gary and start planning. I think something like that would be a great success here, too.”
San Benito + holds events throughout the year—such as their annual Pride celebration in June. “We had just over 200 participants this year,” Gutierrez said. The group also recently held a Bob Ross Paint Night, where canvases and supplies were provided, as well as snacks and drinks.
“We’re also doing a pumpkin decorating event on the weekend of Halloween and are participating in the Hollister Recreation Trick or Treat Street,” he added.
While members of San Benito + have use of the entire Esperanza Center, they also have a dedicated space on the second floor.
“It’s equipped with a conference table that’s big enough for their art kits, and they have couches where they can lounge around, and chairs,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a pretty good space. We offer services on Fridays between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. We have video games, we have a pool table. We have a TV with DVDs, a cool little hangout section. We have a bunch of art supplies, and we’re constantly doing little different activities with the youth.”
Peer mentors are trained to be aware of mental health issues that may arise among the group’s participants, “anything that may be possibly triggered or exacerbated by them coming to grips with their own sexuality, or their family’s reactions to their coming out,” Gutierrez said. “We link the youth to resources, whether it be back to behavioral health or maybe some therapy sessions, or to other local community partners that may offer additional resources.” San Benito + was created in collaboration with SBHS’s Gay Straight Alliance Club about 10 years ago, Gutierrez said.
The Behavioral Health Department realized this was an overlooked group and they wanted to make sure they dealt with any mental health issues that arose, he said.
Students in the Gay Straight Alliance Club at that time became involved with San Benito +, and many became the first peer mentors of the group. Gutierrez said that San Benito + still communicates with the county’s school districts when they hold large events. “We also post a lot on our social media,” he added. “We are on Facebook and Instagram, which is where we’re most active and have the most engagement.”
Aislinn Barnes, last year’s SBHS Gay Straight Alliance president, said the club provided another safe space for youth who did not have support at home or among their peers.
“It helped me form a community and become more confident in who I am, in a town that doesn’t always foster acceptance and confidence,” she said. “We watched documentaries, had group discussions, and just hung out; a group of people who had one thing in common found a home within each other.”
With such local support groups already in existence, Byrne feels that San Benito County residents are ready to further that support.
“The Community Foundation will get a door built and get the kids to color it, and can work with the San Benito County Arts Council as their project.”
Byrne’s experience at Pajaro Valley’s National Coming Out Day celebration was one he won’t forget, and he wants to share this experience with this community.
“The kids, the cheerleaders, football players, the teachers—everybody—were very supportive,” he said. “It was very touching.”
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