LGBT Group Builds Support In Southern Arizona
July 25, 2012

Photo courtesy of Wingspan
The Wingspan center in downtown Tucson.

TUCSON, Ariz. -- In Tucson, Ariz., a nonprofit group is working to reduce hate and bias against the LGBT community. It’s called Wingspan and it is doing so through education; training even government organizations about tolerance within the ranks.

Inside the airy rooms of Studio One, a group of artists is meeting on a late Saturday afternoon. The logistics are a little daunting but they have no shortage of volunteers. They are preparing for a Latino gay pride festival.

The circle of artists brings together burlesque performers, photographers, event planners, singers, dancers and poets.

Paco Velez runs the bilingual outreach program for Wingspan. It’s called Puertas Abiertas, Open Doors. Usually he works with teens in border communities, making sure the LGBT population has a support structure in areas where resources can be scarce, like small border towns. Today, he’s focused on the festival.

"We have amazing people coming together and working on this and planning fun events and educational events. Part of the main goal is educating and outreach and creating allies for this community," Velez said. "I feel that’s super important.”

Some of those here today say being gay is easier than it’s been in the past. But there is still discrimination and bias, even attacks.

Kristi Smith works at Wingspan. Offenses against people who are gay run the gamut, she says: ostracizing people, verbal abuse, discrimination.

"Those are some of the calls that we still get. A lot of it still happens on the streets where there’s not a whole lot of laws or protections that are out there. Folks can’t necessarily call up and say I was just harassed on the street because what are you going to do with that," Smith said.

She believes hate crimes, attacking someone based on who they are or what they believe, is still an underreported crime, even in bigger cities like Tucson.

"Last year we reported to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs and we had about ten hate crimes that were reported to us at Wingspan. That varies from even what the police department has," Smith said.

Officials at the Tucson Police Department say law enforcement here doesn't tally hate crimes specifically.

Back in Studio One, the group is wrapping up its first meeting.

Jacqueline Larriva is helping out today. She particularly wants the festival to draw teens. She herself came out to her friends when she was 14 and then to a Wingspan volunteer at a street fair. She was introduced to the group and to a world of people going through the same tensions growing up.

The Search For Tolerance

Fronteras: The Changing America Desk has joined forces with Not in Our Town documentary producers to determine how hate affects communities throughout the Southwest and what people are doing about it.

"And then my mom asked me what I was gonna do one weekend and I told her I was gonna go to Fourth Avenue. 'What are you going to do on Fourth Avenue?' -- 'Oh I’m going to go to this LGBTQ center.' -- I was hoping that she would figure it out and leave it there," Larriva said. "And she’s like, -- 'Why are you going there?' -- 'Because I’m gay' -- and that’s how I came out to my mom."

Helping out with projects like this, Larriva said, is how she returns the favor.

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