Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 41 / 12 October 2017
 

Funds sought for LGBT center in Visalia

NEWS


m.bajko@ebar.com

Nick Vargas, left, and Brian Poth are raising money for an LGBT community center in Visalia. Photo: Brooke Jackson Photography
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A campaign is underway to raise money for an LGBT community center in the heart of downtown Visalia, an agricultural hub in the southern Central Valley north of Bakersfield.

Backers of what is being called the Source LGBT-plus Center aim to raise $5,000 by May 1 via an online appeal posted to the site CrowdRise. As of Wednesday this week, the fundraising drive had netted $500.

The lead organizers are two gay men who grew up in the area then headed to two of the state's main coastal regions for college, eventually returning to their hometown last summer. Visalia native Nick Vargas, 38, after graduating from Stanford, had been living in San Francisco's gay Castro district and working in finance as an investment adviser for 18 years.

But family matters and the increasingly high rents in the city prompted him to return to the Central Valley city. He is now working as a substitute teacher in the local public schools.

Actor Brian Poth, 40, who was a recurring character on the CBS crime show CSI Miami, also returned home last year from the gay enclave of West Hollywood due to a family emergency. The Visalia resident, who grew up in nearby Tulare, also now works as a substitute teacher and runs an after-school program for performing arts and filmmaking through a local charter school.

The friends, both single, initially met at a dinner arranged by a mutual acquaintance. They bonded over their both having moved back to the rural town from the big city.

"Coming back to the area was difficult because the visibility of what I consider to be gay life doesn't exist here," said Poth. "There is safety in numbers. Coming from West Hollywood, everyone I knew was gay."

Moving back to Visalia, added Poth, was a bit "bizarre" at first.

"I felt like I had gone in a time machine and gone back to 1993 when I graduated high school," he recalled. "Not a lot has changed here."

It is unclear just how many LGBT people call the area home. According to the Williams Institute, the LGBT think tank at the UCLA School of Law, 10 percent of the state's more than 1.3 million LGBT residents reside in what it calls the Southern and Central Farm region, which includes the San Joaquin Valley as well as an area along the border with Mexico east of San Diego County.

In 2011 it was reported that Tulare County, which includes Visalia, had the highest percentage of same-sex couples raising children of any area in the state. Based on U.S. Census data, 46 percent of the 824 same-sex couples living in Tulare County had children.

A 2008 report from the think tank, using both federal and state data, found that in Kings County there were 2,160 gay, lesbian, or bisexual residents with 284 same-sex couples.

There was no relevant data for the number of LGB residents in Tulare County, although the report did say there were 417 same-sex couples living there. (The study did not include data on transgender residents.)

Other than the Republic, a local straight bar that twice a week hosts drag shows, there are limited opportunities for LGBT people who live in Tulare or Kings counties to socialize and access services. The closest LGBT center is located north of Visalia in Fresno, about an hour's drive away.

Thus, Vargas and Poth decided to open a local LGBT center that could serve as a gathering place, referral center, and provider of services for residents of Visalia and the surrounding area.

"Not even LGBT adults have a place to go outside the drag nights," said Poth, who played a vampire on HBO's True Blood and was in two episodes of the cable channel's acclaimed series Six Feet Under. "Every time I open my mouth about it, another person said we really need it. I started asking around to start meeting and get a board together."

William Martin, a local businessman and straight ally, offered them a basement space in a retail building he owns at a reduced rent. Located at 208 West Main Street in Visalia, the space includes an entrance area with room for seating, a small office, and a larger conference room that can accommodate 15 people.

The center would also have access to a larger meeting room that can hold up to 40 people. They signed a letter of intent in February to secure the space for the first year and agreed to a sliding scale rent in the second year with an option to renew.

"This is new for everybody here. My aim is for it to be a presence that I know exists in other areas," said Poth. "We are not here to be activists. We are just here to say if you need a place and need to ask some questions, we may be able to hook you up with some resources we did some good vetting on."

Their fundraising target would cover the center's first year of rent, as well as start up costs to incorporate as a nonprofit and buy initial supplies. They are confident they can reach their goal and open the doors to the center on May 1, which is a Sunday.

"We want to offer a safe space for anyone who identifies as LGBT or an ally to come and hang out," said Vargas. "The center will also provide access to resources and things that already exist, like Planned Parenthood, health services in the county of Tulare, and PFLAG."

They also want to begin offering peer-to-peer support groups at the center, as well as gay-friendly recovery services like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They would also like to compile a list of gay, lesbian, and transgender friendly doctors in the area.

Beverly Anderson, a local licensed marriage and family therapist, has agreed to serve as the center's clinical adviser. And Karen Adell Scot, a transgender woman living in Yosemite who just started her own nonprofit called Transcare, is serving as a trans adviser to the center.

The center has also received support from lesbian Visalia City Councilwoman and Tulare County supervisor candidate Amy Shuklian, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

She grew up on her family's farm and now lives with her partner of 19 years, Mary Randol, and their two rescue chocolate Labrador retrievers, Georgee and Gracee.

 

To donate to the center, visit https://www.crowdrise.com/thesource-lgbt-center1.

Those interested in learning more about the center can visit http://www.thesourcelgbt.org or email Vargas and Poth at thesourceLGBT@gmail.com.

 






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