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In Between: Stories of Queer and Trans People of Color in SLO County is an eight-part series from KCBX Public Radio. Through in-depth feature reporting reporter Erick Gabriel shares stories and experiences from queer and trans people of color in San Luis Obispo County. The series explores the systemic barriers they face in education, healthcare, the workplace and more — and also how they’re making change and building community.

In Between: What it's like to be a Queer and Trans Person of Color in SLO County

The Progress Pride Flag includes black and brown stripes to represent marginalized LGBTQ+ communities of color, along with the colors pink, light blue and white, which are used on the Transgender Pride Flag.

The sights and sounds of people walking around downtown San Luis Obispo fill the air on a typical weekend. People wander through the tree-lined Mission Plaza alongside San Luis Creek, sip lattes from the numerous coffee shops and exit boutique shops with their arms full. The crowd is usually a mix of college-age students from Cal Poly, families and retirees.

Look around a little longer. What do you see? Probably an overwhelming majority of straight, white people. The SLO Community Foundation’s “Growing Together Initiative” reports that the vast majority of county residents identify as straight, and the latest census reveals that SLO County has an almost homogenous population made of 88% “white” people.

With those statistics in mind, you might imagine that someone like Raine, a trans student of color at Atascadero High School, doesn’t always feel comfortable in this county.

“Safe, yes,” Raine said. “Comfortable, no…it’s like two completely different things.”

We’re not using Raine’s real name, and we’ve altered their voice for privacy and safety. Now a senior at AHS, they were raised in a traditional Mexican household, part of the small, roughly 12-percent minority of people of color in the county — most of whom are Latino.

Raine’s mom is part of a strict branch of Christianity and their dad is a blue-collar worker. They’re the middle child of three and have grown up their whole life in Atascadero. Being raised in a conservative household, Raine still isn’t open about their bisexuality and trans identity.

“Well, to begin with, being queer, gay, anything like that is out of the question” Raine said. “It’s not really, “oh you’re you,” it’s just, “you’re not.”

You are not to be your authentic self. You are not to deviate from the normal. You are not acknowledged for who you truly are. Small things like painting your nails or shaving your legs — these are things Raine wishes they could do without their parents’ disapproval.

Central Coast Queer Archive Project

“This is America. You’re supposed to be able to do what you want, but a lot of the time it doesn’t feel like that,” said Raine. “I know that if I lived in a more — if I lived in a white household, I wouldn’t have a lot of these issues, or at the very least they wouldn’t be as extreme as they are.”

Whether that is true or not is unknown, but Raine's longing for freedom of expression is very real.

“Living in your truth” and “being authentically you” are phrases Raine and many other LGBTQ+ individuals in the region expressed throughout my reporting for this series. The need for community connection is top of mind for many queer and trans individuals, especially in rural areas of SLO County like Atascadero.

Less than half of LGBTQ+ individuals in SLO County feel like they belong to a community of people who share their sexual or gender identity, according to an assessment done by Queer Community Action, Research, Education, and Support at Cal Poly.

Barry Johnson is the education advocacy director at Transitions Mental Health Association based in San Luis Obispo. He says, though he isn’t part of the queer community, he works with LGBTQ+ patients frequently and describes himself as a strong advocate for queer, trans people of color.

“I am a white cisgender straight man,” said Johnson. “Statistically and through the stories that I hear, I know that people of color are marginalized — marginalized significantly in all sectors of life here, as are queer and trans people, whether it's healthcare, affordable housing, living wage employment. All of that can be challenging to access for most people living on the Central Coast — for marginalized people.”

According to SLO County Behavioral Health, many of the top barriers to mental health care here are specific to people identifying as LGBTQ+. Johnson says that, besides the stigma that often goes with seeing a therapist, it may be harder to find someone who you feel comfortable with as a queer POC.

“ If you're a person of color, or someone whose primary language is not English, you're most likely adding even more barriers to access — certainly more barriers in finding someone like you who can be a therapist,” Johnson said.

Johnson says he believes these barriers are partly what prevents the Central Coast from becoming less straight and white.

“Historically, marginalized people, they get edged out from the get go,” Jonhson said. “And I would probably say that's why we don't have the level of diversity that many of us would like to see on the Central Coast.”

Queer community members like Jamie Woolf agree. She’s called San Luis Obispo home for 15 years and is a retired chair of Trans Central Coast — which supports trans and non-binary people on the Central Coast. Woolf is a current member of the advisory committee for Growing Together: an LGBTQ+ Fund.

According to their website, the community fund provides grants to local groups that promote the ideas of social justice, civil society and juvenile safety. They also sponsor this series.

Woolf says, though SLO is generally progressive, that doesn’t mean it totally embraces queer people.

“Stigma certainly does exist,” Woolf said. “ Not so much in San Luis Obispo. San Luis is still a very — is a very progressive town. And I mean, can bad things happen anywhere? Of course they can. And it could happen here.”

Matt Klepfer/SLO Queer Crowd

But what about more rural parts of SLO County?

“When we get out of SLO, it starts to become a little iffier, particularly going into the North County — Atascadero, Templeton, Paso and some of the rural areas there, “Woolf said. “And a little bit, maybe not as much, but it still exists in the southern part of [the county, like] Arroyo Grande, Nipomo.”

The stigma of being a queer person of color is something Raine, the Atascadero High student, feels all the time.

“I just gotta hope for the best because I'm Latino and brown. I'm not — I'm not white and a lot of that, like it shows up in just everyday — in everyday life,” Raine said. “ It's, like, good sometimes you don't even notice it. But yeah, it's very much alive and you do experience it. I've had experiences where I've been racially profiled — or not necessarily racially profiled but, like, been discriminated against.”

That discrimination makes it even more important for Raine and other queer and trans people of color to find a sense of community in SLO County.

Community, by Oxford Languages definition, is about creating a “feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” It extends well beyond just friends and gathering places. Community is also critical in accessing health care, getting an education, creating safe workplaces and thriving in places where you’re authentically you.

We’ll explore some of those joyous spaces throughout this series. But first, we have to look at a phenomenon that can be traumatizing to queer people of color like Raine: bullying and harassment at school. Next week we’ll hear stories from local students dealing with this in SLO County, as well as how they and school officials are creating change.

In Between is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.

Erick Gabriel is a Los Angeles-based multimedia journalist with an interest in current events, breaking news and popular culture.
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