Growing up in southern San Luis Obispo County, Erica Andrade and Denise Aguilar noticed a lack of resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens in the area, especially when it came to big events like Pride celebrations.
Both said they had difficulties making it to San Luis Obispo, where most of the county’s LGBTQ resources and events were located, and as a result, sometimes felt isolated from the larger community.
Now the couple are at the helm of 5 Cities Hope, a non-profit, LGBTQ support organization based in the South County, and are providing for the younger generation what they didn’t have a few years ago.
Top of their list? Host the Five Cities’ first-ever Pride Celebration in the heart of Arroyo Grande in June.
“It is needed,” Andrade told The Tribune in an interview in late March. “Something like this is needed.”
Need for 5 Cities Pride
Pride festivals are among the most well-known celebrations of the LGBTQ community.
San Luis Obispo’s annual Central Coast Pride celebration draws hundreds of people to downtown festivities each year, but other areas of the county have been slower to host their own festivities.
Andrade and Aguilar said they think it’s important to host a Pride event in Arroyo Grande to make it more accessible to the general public, but especially for gay kids and teens.
“A Pride in Five Cities? I don’t know that’s something I ever would have imagined, especially as a kid,” Andrade said. “I struggled being able to go to SLO. I think I went (to Pride) when I was 16, but I was lucky that my sister was in town. I don’t think my Latino, Catholic parents would have taken me to that. I don’t think that would have even been an option for me, to ask my parents.”
Aguilar said she had similar experiences growing up.
“It was like two hours on the bus just to get to San Luis,” Aguilar, who hails from Nipomo, said. “It was rough getting there, especially for a lot of kids who aren’t out to their parents. It’s very hard for them to talk to their parents and be like, ‘Drive me over there and leave me for a few hours.’ “
That’s a huge part of why the two have been so focused on bringing a Pride event to South County — and why it’s exciting for them that it’s fast approaching.
“I’m still surprised,” Andrade said. “It’s like ‘Wow — we’re doing this?’ It’s crazy.”
Pride needs community
Though it was needed, they didn’t visualize hosting an event of this scale quite so soon, Andrade said.
The group initially didn’t plan to host a Pride celebration until 5 Cities Hope was at least five years old. But two years after the organization’s founding in 2017, the community support has been so great they felt they had to move up their timetable, she said.
“The biggest motivation for us was to start something here because it never existed before,” Andrade said. “People have been really receptive of us and we’ve been running at 100 miles per hour.”
Putting on a Pride event isn’t easy. The group has been planning the details of the event since August, and each step of the way has been dictated by input from their volunteers and the community.
Originally, Andrade said the group intended to hold the event in the parking lot of their new office at CAPSLO’s Center for Health and Prevention. But due to the response, they decided to move it to the Village of Arroyo Grande.
“It’s just evolved,” she said. “We’ll see where we are five years, 10 years from now — but it’s been really great so far.”
The event will include local LGBT-friendly businesses, a resource fair, a teen lounge and other festivities, including a drag performance and an opening ceremony with local government officials.
“I wish I could have seen something like this when I was a kid,” Andrade said.
The celebration is scheduled to take place June 1 in the Village of Arroyo Grande from noon to 4 p.m. — but organizers could still use a little help getting it up and running.
Enter the GoFundMe campaign. 5 Cities Hope launched an online fundraising campaign in January to help pay for the event.
As of Tuesday, the group had raised $1,745 of its $5,000 goal.
“We’re still waiting it out, but obviously it’s been community donations that are making this happen,” Andrade said.
The group is also still looking for donors for the event.
In the meantime, the group continues to host its weekly and monthly outreach events such as bonfire nights, movie viewings and teen groups. It will host a tie-dye event at its office at 1152 E. Grand Ave. in Arroyo Grande on May 18, with all proceeds going to the Pride celebration.
A big part of the organization has been making all their events family friendly and open to all ages — which has caused a corresponding boom in representation and involvement from the younger LGBT population.
“There is a thriving scene,” Andrade said. “There are still some challenges obviously — coming out and being young. Being part of the community, you face these adversities, but it’s really hopeful to see that there are so many youth.”
Andrade pointed specifically to a young volunteer who is forming a gay-straight alliance at Paulding Middle School in Arroyo Grande on his own.
“I wouldn’t think that would be something I would do 15, 20 years ago, so it’s really inspiring what’s going on in the Five Cities,” she said. “It’s bigger than us, for sure.”