In August 2019, EBX sat down with Oakland LGBTQ Center CEO Joe Hawkins and Vice President Dawn Edwards to celebrate two years of a place that almost didn’t happen. Hawkins recalled:
“About six years ago, co-founder and current chairman of the board, Jeff Myers, and I attended the Hands Around The Lake event after Trump won the election. It was a very sad, and we knew things were about to hit the fan. For years there was talk of starting an LGBTQ community center, and nothing happened. I’m also one of the co-founders of ‘Oakland Pride, and although I’m no longer with that organization, I wrote in the mission statement that it would one day raise funds for a center, but after I left, people stopped talking to open the center.
“After that, I was walking down the street – Jeff and I live in Adam’s Point here – and we’ve lived here forever. This area was once a mecca for black gay people in the 80s and 90s. Jeff shouted from his balcony and he said, “Joe, we have to open the center.” He said he went to the San Francisco LGBTQ Center gala, and asked them if they could help us, and they said they could open a satellite here. I said, “Hell no, there can’t be an SF satellite in Oakland.” Do you want to open a community center here in Oakland? That’s how it started.
At first, Myers believed the San Francisco center had something to offer, but when asked why Hawkins rejected the offer, he replied:
“We are not San Francisco. What people don’t know about LGBTQ community centers in California, which has the most of any state, is that they are generally founded, owned and run by white people. This center is one of the few founded and run by blacks, for all. You see things in a different light when you’re a black person and how you navigate service delivery. How will you provide services? And we see it in everything we do here. When we opened, we only had one office. It was a coworking space. It was called Co-Munity, and we rented an office here, only to find out three months later that they were being kicked out.
“So that was after our grand opening in September. T-Mobile literally gave me the number to the owner and I was shocked. I emailed him, told him who we were, what we We were trying to do, and he called me an hour or two later and he said, ‘Joe, what happens when people don’t pay their rent?’
” What is the next step ? I asked, and he said we had first right of refusal, and we could start negotiating the lease and everything. We took it over in January 2018 and our rent went from $500 to $10,000 per month. Jeff and I got the lease and were reviewing the terms. We had pro bono lawyers, everybody was working with us on this, and Jeff said, “Where are we going to get this money from?
“I said, ‘Don’t worry about that. I’ve been a nonprofit executive for a long time, and Oakland needs it and the people will support it. So let’s get busy.
“So we took it over, we pitched a community swoop for office space. We filled the offices with gay and trans therapists. They rented the offices, and that reduced our rent by a little more than half. Then we did drag shows in our main room to raise funds, and that brought us up to about $8,000, and the rest was just donations.
“At first we only had support groups, but then the therapists rented the offices. I’m a grants writer, so we started writing grants, and I knew what we needed from my experience. We got our first contract with the city to help LGBTQ youth; from there, we secured another contract to help black and Latino men at risk of contracting HIV; and from there, we wrote a big $4 million clinical grant that we got in 2020, which transformed our whole situation. Since then, we have grown into a multi-million dollar full service agency.
It has now been five years since the LGBTQ Center of Oakland opened its doors, and its meteoric rise owes much to the services they provide not only to the LGBTQ community, but to all of Oakland in need.
“Everyone benefits when the most marginalized people are the ones running the show,” Hawkins said. “We now offer many services, from emergency rental assistance to food, transportation assistance, mental health, recovery services, for people struggling with addiction and recovery. We have a clinic where we do everything from sexual health to monkeypox. Recently, we were the lead CBL community organization to launch the Monkeypox Vaccination Clinic. We do them in the office and because a lot of people don’t want to queue outside. We do appointments at the clinic, but we also do them across the street here.
“There are now back-to-back Pride festivals in Oakland. There’s one this weekend, and our fifth anniversary at Pride Fest on September 11th. We’ll have a big vaccination clinic for what we call ‘MPox’, because ‘monkeypox’ sounded a bit racist in some ways. Then we will start doing the mass vaccine again, because we are now entering the second dose of this two-dose treatment, just like the COVID vaccine. We will be very busy doing that too.
As was the case with COVID, MPox has disproportionately affected marginalized populations; it brought up some troubling memories for Hawkins.
“I come from the time when HIV was present. I was a social worker in the 80s. I worked in Oakland and saw young men walking the streets with canes because of AIDS. There was no treatment, there was nothing. I know the trauma of how it lives on in the cultural memory of the community,” he said. “When MPox happened, people started posting videos of what they had, which I thought was very brave and very necessary. My timeline literally started to fill up, and I was like, ‘Oh God, it’s not just a few people,” and it took me back to the 80s and 90s when HIV and AIDS were killing so many people.
“People were scared. Depending on the severity, it’s really painful, and it leaves scars, and people have problems with scarring. Nobody would want that, which is why I’m really happy that we’re seeing so many people getting vaccinated. Our first two weeks of registrations were about 1,400 appointments. Black and Latino men have had the highest case rates, and that’s disproportionate for those communities, but we’re seeing black and Latino men coming in and getting vaccinated too. We’ve helped spread the word about it, and I’m really happy to see so many women coming to get vaccinated too. »
MPox vaccinations go through the center’s Glenn Burke Wellness Clinic. Many don’t know the iconic athlete as they should.
“Glenn Burke is my hero,” Hawkins said. “Jeff and I received an award about four years ago, just a year after the center opened, from the Multicultural Sports Hall of Fame. When we first received the notice, I was like, ‘Jeff, I know you can’t do anything but jump rope, and I can make a mean Patty Cake.’ We had no idea why we were being recognized by them, but then we realized it was in the name of this guy, Glenn Burke, and we weren’t sure who he was.
“When we got there they were creating a documentary about his life. At the end of this documentary, I was in tears. I probably even worked with this man and didn’t know he was a hero. Glenn Burke was the first gay American player in Major League Baseball. He first played for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He has been compared to Willie Mays.
“He was unabashedly gay while playing in the majors. They even offered to pay him $75,000 in 1970s money to marry a woman. Instead, he dated (LA Dodgers coach) son Tommy Lasorda, and they kicked him out. He came back to Oakland, where he comes from. He was a star player at Berkeley High.
“He was blackballed from Major League Baseball, and it was very traumatic for him because he loved it. He was also a great basketball player, but he loved baseball. And he started playing with the San Francisco gay softball league, but nothing was really the same after that. He became addicted to crack and died of AIDS in 1995.
Burke may have died in obscurity, but he had a lasting impact, not just in baseball, but in all sports and popular culture.
“In 1976 in Los Angeles, he and Dusty Baker were accredited with something that we are all so familiar with today in sports; it had never been filmed before,” Hawkins said. “During the World Series, Dusty Baker hit a home run, and Glenn Burke was so happy he ran up to him and he put his hand up. Baker said, “I didn’t know what to do. So I raised my hand,” and that was the first high five. The first that was recorded at least.
“His documentary is on YouTube. Jamie Lee Curtis has bought the rights to her story, and she and Ryan Murphy are working on a film about her life. And what’s so wonderful about it is that our Glenn Burke Health Clinic is right here in Oakland. We wanted to create a clinic that he would have benefited from.
“His family came here when we started, and we had to get the rights to his name. We had to work with Major League Baseball, Billy Bean and so many others to make this happen. They renamed Pride Night to Glenn Burke Pride Night for the Oakland Aces, and LA held its first Glenn Burke Pride Night that year; it was packed. I am so humbled and honored to see hundreds of people named after him in our clinic and that just knowing what he went through is so powerful to me. “
As for the upcoming 9/11 Pride event, it promises to be one for all ages.
“Iheartradio’s DJ Christie (James) does it all, and she’s co-chair with Sean Sullivan, the other co-chair. Our role is to provide transparency and ensure that conflicts of interest are identified. It feels like it’s going to be a celebration where at the end everyone will know where the money went, and that’s important,” Hawkins said.
“People are going to have a great time. There will be over a hundred providers, and of course getting Big Freedia, which I still can’t believe is a big name there, it’s so awesome. She’s on the hot song of the summer, “Break My Soul,” with Beyonce. Yeah. We also have the legendary Crystal Waters, and there’s this incredible new Indian artist named Madame Gandhi. People are going to be blown away by it. There will be three stages showcasing so much talent from and for our community.