By Kendra Sitton
Each year, San Diego Pride hands out several awards to organizations and people that have made outstanding contributions to the LGBT+ community. The honorees will receive their awards at the Spirit of Stonewall Rally on Friday, July 15 from 6-7 p.m. at the Hillcrest Pride Flag.
All Pride celebrations stem from the anti-police violence riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in June, 1969. The rally recognizes the activist roots of Pride with LGBT+ advocates giving speeches during the awards ceremony.
Pride honors a diverse array of people and organizations at the rally but often follows a theme to highlight exceptional activism.
“It’s our first year back and unfortunately, it’s been two years of this rise in anti-API hate and targeted violence. So in similar ways to how we have featured the trans community and the growing attacks in the trans community, or featured Black Lives Matter, or the border crisis, this year, it was really important to the organization to highlight the rise in anti-API violence and say ‘LGBTQ API folks are valid and important part of our community who have been at the front of so much of this movement,’” said San Diego Pride Executive Director Fernando Lopez.
This year, three of the awardees – Alex Villafuerte, Aidan Lin and Trinh Le – are from Asian American Pacific Islander (API) communities which have spent the last few years facing a rise in racist violence. In a statement, Pride invited the public to join the organization in fighting against API violence, hate and erasure as well as celebrating the rich cultural diversity and advocacy of the LGBTQ Asian Pacific Islander Middle Eastern Desi American community.
“Our LGBTQ AAPI community knows that they’re a part of us. They’re seeing they’re valid and we’re here. We have their back,” Lopez said.
In addition, these three awardees were all integral in the redistricting process. With new census data from 2020, they a part of a broad coalition of groups pushing for fair representation in their elected leaders. Minority communities pushed for their votes not to be diluted in the new district map and instead for those diverse communities to have equal representation among elected leaders.
“We wanted to make sure that the folks who have really been leading that work in the last several years were highlighted and celebrated,” they added.
The other Stonewall awards recipients are Vanessa Green, the San Diego Union-Tribune, The San Diego Women’s Chorus, and Viejas Casino & Resort.
[Editor’s note: To learn more about this year’s Community Grand Marshall trans youth, please visit https://sduptownnews.com/trans-youth-lead-parade-after-year-of-political-attacks/]
Champion of Pride: Alex Villafuerte
Alex Villafuerte has demonstrated leadership in the LGBT+ and API community over the past several years. Even while working for nonprofit organizations such as Pride, Villafuerte found time for passion projects. He co-founded the San Diego Queer Asian Pacific Islander Middle Eastern Desi American (QAPIMEDA) Coalition which carves out intentional space for the queer Asian community in events and programming.
“That really just blossomed into a lot of advocacy work within the API community, especially around the rise of hate that we’ve seen,” Villafuerte said.
Amid the rise in Asian hate during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Villafuerte helped put out a massive joint statement of over 80 organizations condemning xenophobia and urging elected officials to protect the API community. From that group, the San Diego API Coalition was formed of 40 API-serving organizations with Villafuerte as co-chair. Through that preparatory work, the coalition was able to mobilize quickly in the wake of the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting that targeted Asian women. Pride is making an effort to support the API community after this violence.
“It’s important to highlight this specific intersection, because on both sides, LGBT folks in the API community, API folks in the LGBT community, can feel a little bit invisible in either space,” Villafuerte explained.
The Champion of Pride honor is often bestowed on a leader who has served Pride. Villafuerte volunteered as in intern in 2016 then worked for San Diego Pride’s marketing department until late 2021.
“To be given the Champion of Pride Award was a lot. I hold that award in high regard in the past six years and looked up to everyone who’s gotten it, so to be in the same caliber as those people is humbling,” he said.
Like two of the other Stonewall awardees, Villafuerte played a role in the city-wide coalition advocating for marginalized communities during the redistricting process. For the first time in San Diego, Asian people make up 40% of a city council district in the new map.
In both elected leadership and leadership in other spaces, Villafuerte hopes to continue empowering people so all folks can see themselves reflected in their leaders.
Community service: Aidan Lin
Aidan Lin, the Executive Director of Our Time to Act (OTTA) United, received Pride’s Community Service Award for his intersectional advocacy for LGBT+ youth, API and Latine communities. He co-founded the youth empowerment nonprofit OTTA United in high school and has continued his activism as a student at UCSD.
During the redistricting process, Lin became heavily involved in building collective power – he worked alongside of students, LGBTQ+ people, Latine, Black and BIPOC communities to shore up political representation.
“We all worked together to advocate for marginalized communities and see if we could shake up the status quo,” Lin said.
The coalition work of pushing for fair district lines that do not dilute minority power is often overlooked, which is one of the reasons Pride is drawing attention to the process through its annual awards.
“It was really wonderful to see this collaborative, coalition-building work that I think also often goes unrecognized,” Pride Executive Director Fernando Lopez said.
Lin felt that even though the exact map the coalition proposed was not adopted, they still succeeded in bringing marginalized communities into the process. He is especially proud that the communities he is a part of – LGBT+ youth, Asian and Latine communities – were recognized during the process and are playing a larger role in politics.
“I didn’t really see myself as a hero of course. I just wanted to speak up and get involved. It feels incredible to be recognized for that work and, and to see all of the communities that I collaborated with be uplifted as a result,” said the University City resident.
Lin said Pride’s decision to highlight API activists is important amid rising hate crimes against Asian Americans and rise in discrimination against LGBT+ people.
“Both communities know what it means to be hated on, to be discriminated against, to feel like they’re less than or that their voices don’t matter,” he explained. “I think it’s incredibly important to come together and to build solidarity.”
Friend of Pride: Trinh Le
Trinh Le, an experienced organizer who is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, is being honored for her role in building the coalition that helped pass the new district map that empowered many marginalized communities to play a larger role in deciding local elections. This award acknowledges that Le is not a part of the LGBT+ community but she has nonetheless been a supporter of the community for years and made a contribution to LGBT+ rights this year.
“Trinh was able to really bring together the Black community, the LatinX community, the AAPI community, the LGBT community and say, ‘How can we join forces and work collaboratively and show solidarity in this intersectional movement?’ And there’s no question that Trinh was at the front of that work,” Lopez said.
Le co-lead a city-wide coalition that succeeded in kept LGBT+ representation strong in City Council District 3 and created San Diego’s first Asian-influenced district in District 6. The map also enshrined District 9 as a secondary LGBT+ district. Her childhood as one of five children to a single mother led to her decision in college to become an organizer.
“I grew up feeling very different in terms of our socioeconomic status, in terms of my race, my gender, and it wasn’t till college when I really understood where my shame was coming from – that it’s actually systemic for us to feel like it’s our fault. And it’s not. There’s policies in place that keep folks where they’re at,” Le said.
She has organized in several areas including Los Angeles, the Bay area and the Mississippi gulf coast. She believes organizing is the best way to create systemic change.
“That’s how we change policy so that folks like me and all marginalized folks don’t feel ashamed are being different,” she said.
Le was shocked when Pride announced that she would be honored for her advocacy as an ally to the LGBT+ community.
“I’ve been a part of and I’ve worked with LGBT folks for a very long time and doing social justice work. And I always feel like it’s not enough. It’s never enough, right? There’s just so much injustice going on against the LGBTQ community and I feel like what I’ve done, it’s just like a penny in a bucket,” she said.
After reading the bios of past awardees and about the work they had done, Le said she was honored to be counted among them.
Friend of Pride: Vanessa Green
Sixty-year-old Vanessa Green has spent her life as an activist for racial justice and women’s rights – which she never viewed as separate than the fight for LGBT+ rights.
“I want Black people to stop separating. There is no such thing as a queer person and then there’s a Black person. When there’s a queer Black person, they all that and then some,” she said.
Her lifetime of advocacy was instilled in her when she was young – her grandmother was an organizer for Green’s entire life. She also grew up with an out and proud gay uncle.
“In our community, we had a rainbow of folks… I’ve always been the person to say ‘What’s wrong with y’all?’ These are our people,” Green said. “If we lift up disabled trans Black women this world will be a better place.”
Green explained that the way Black and queer communities are pitted against each other has led to the violence Black trans women face.
“We sometimes forget that the reason so many Black trans women are killed is because of how we dehumanize them on a regular basis. If this was white trans women, this country would stop but because they’re Black, there hasn’t been the outcry that we need in this country to say ‘stop killing Black trans women,” she said.
Green sees her longtime support of LGBT+ rights as “just doing what’s right” to make sure young queer folks know they are loved, affirmed and supported.
“That’s just something that I will always do until they shovel dirt on me,” Green said.
The majority of Green’s activism occurred in New York state where she helped organize Rockland Pride for 25 years as well as advocating against domestic violence. In 2018, she moved to City Heights to be near her two queer children in the wake of death threats she received while being a part of a lawsuit against the local police department. Now, she lives in Spring Valley with her daughter.
Moving to San Diego did not slow down her advocacy. She worked at Alliance San Diego before moving to the County of San Diego Office for Equity and Racial Justice when it was created in 2019. Meanwhile, she served on the organizing committee for San Diego March4Black WomXn and Black WomXn Deserve. She founded Call Black Line, a crisis line for people to report negative interactions with police and receive crisis counseling.
Following a Black Town Hall at the LGBT Center where Black LGBT+ people shared their negative experiences with the Center, Green served on the newly-formed Black Advisory Committee which ensures services for Black community members at the Center improve.
“I don’t look for accolades, because injustice is all around us,” Green said about receiving this honor from Pride. Still, she is grateful that her work is being acknowledged when so often accolades go to the rich and famous.
Green does not intend to slow down her advocacy in the future.
“I’m in this fight so that the most marginalized of us can live with dignity, humanity, love and acceptance,” she said. “That’s really what my fight has always been.”
Stonewall Service: San Diego Union-Tribune
The Stonewall Service Award is given to an organization that has supported the LGBT+ community over several years or made an exceptional contribution in the past year. This year, the San Diego Union-Tribune (SDUT) was honored for centering the voices of LGBT+ people in its coverage.
“It’s amazingly delightful and so surprising to me,” publisher and editor in chief Jeff Light said.
Light is right to be surprised the SDUT received this prestigious award – the past few recipients have been nonprofits and other LGBT+-serving organizations like the Black LGBTQ Coalition, Casa Arcoíris and Gay Men’s Chorus. The choice of honoring the SDUT recognizes the publication’s efforts to spread knowledge and build understanding the community.
Light described the award as an “affirmation” of the paper’s commitment to platforming community voices over talking heads. Light stood behind the philosophy of using the opinion page as a place for intelligent voices in the community to speak out instead of being spoken to by a few columnists. He is elated that other organizations agree that this pivot is important in ensuring readers hear from multiple perspectives.
“I think this is really reflects our focus on listening, rather than talking,” the publisher said.
An example of this policy at work occurred on Jan. 31, 2021 when the entire opinion page was written by trans people reacting to the news President Biden had lifted the transgender military ban and nominated a transgender woman, Dr. Rachel Levine, as assistant health secretary.
Amid a national moral panic about transgender people, many legacy media publications have published columns and articles feeding into the misinformation and fear-mongering surrounding the trans community. The SDUT has done the opposite by letting trans people share their own stories.
“Right now, when we’re seeing such bias and hate and ignorance and the really scary targeting of the LGBTQ community, being close with that community, supporting that community, and as a media organization, being a tool against ignorance and hate – it’s a really important time,” said Light.
Light said the recognition shows that the Union-Tribune has been able to regain the trust of the LGBT+ community.
He acknowledged that in the SDUT’s history, the legacy paper had created problems in the community and its reputation had been damaged. He recalled the May Company department store sting in 1974 in which police watched men through the vent and arrested 20 of them for “perversion.” Light said the way the newspaper handled its coverage meant the newspaper was “used as a platform to amplify hate.”
More recently, former owner Doug Manchester vehemently supported Prop 8.
Light said that anytime his people’s work is acknowledged it means the world to him, but being acknowledged by Pride is particularly special given that past.
“The fact that right now our people can be recognized for that good work against that history – it’s pretty amazing,” Light said.
Larry T. Baza Arts & Culture Award: San Diego Women’s Chorus
The Women’s Chorus performs on stage. (Photo courtesy San Diego Women’s Chorus)
In honor of Larry T. Baza, former Pride co-chair and arts administrator, Pride is recognizing a local artist or arts organization annually. Baza died in 2021 from COVID-19 at age 76 and is remembered as an arts supporter who used the arts to elevate, educate, and advocate for the LGBT+ community. This year, the San Diego Women’s Chorus is being honored with his namesake award for the group’s community service.
The chorus strives to live out its mission which is to encourage women’s creativity, celebrate diversity and inspire social action.
“It started as a very homegrown, grassroots organization to uplift and support women’s voices and voices of the LGBTQ community. And now we’ve grown to a large organization of over 150 singers,” said Kathleen Hansen, artistic director for the Women’s Chorus.
In recent years, the chorus has proactively worked to make sure nonbinary members feel welcomed and supported in the organization. The chorus is featuring more music from artists of color as part of their effort to be more inclusive.
“We also like to uplift marginalized communities and fight for rights through music,” Hansen said. “You can reach people through art in ways that people can’t be reached through other mediums.”
In the wake of the Pulse shooting, the Women’s Chorus performed at an impromptu vigil at the Hillcrest Pride Flag. The group also takes part in fundraisers and other nonprofit events. In June, the group performed at an event for the Center for Community Solutions (CCS). The fundraiser supported the rape crisis center and sexual assault survivors. In addition, CCS gave out an award for the Survivor of the Year.
“[CCS] invited us to come and help share that moment,” Hansen said. “Taking good work and amplifying it and adding our voices to lift up people and organizations that can use the extra support.”
Hansen said the chorus is so happy to be longtime partners with Pride and that the two organizations support each other. The East county resident has served as the artistic director for the chorus since 2014.
“It’s always nice to be recognized for the work that we do. We were definitely feeling honored to be selected as the award recipient,” Hansen said.
Stonewall Philanthropy: Viejas Casino & Resort
Viejas Casino has been a longtime and consistent supporter of San Diego Pride. Viejas has opened its grounds for LGBT events and fundraiser. In 2020, Viejas stepped up at a critical time. With the festival canceled due to the pandemic, Pride faced a major loss of revenue that would have hurt year-round programming, maintaining staff employment and made it difficult to restart Pride events in the future with the caliber attendees had come to expect.
At this critical moment, Viejas gave over $135,000 to San Diego Pride which helped the organization pivot to virtual and hybrid events that were safe for the LGBT+ community. The donation allowed Pride to survive the unexpected financial struggles caused by the pandemic. Viejas has continued to support Pride and the LGBT+ community year round and constantly asks how it can support Pride’s efforts.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com.