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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: Creating "brave" spaces for queer people of color in San Luis Obispo County

The welcome table at Art and Soul's event in March.
Eric Mattson
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The welcome table at Art and Soul's event in March.

Having safe spaces is important for queer people of color to be able to live safely, comfortably and authentically. But what does it mean to be in a safe space?

Moira Kenney’s “Mapping Gay L.A." pinpoints the origins of the term "safe space" back to the mid-1960s at a time when “anti-sodomy” laws were still in place. The lack of queer-centric spaces created the need for a place to be out, proud and in good company — “at least until the cops showed up,” wrote Kenney. They were safe in the practical sense but still ran risks from outside forces. They became places where people could find strength in resistance to what Kenney called “social and political repression."

For a person who identifies as a queer person of color, safe spaces are about more than just comfort — they’re also about safety from homophobic and racist violence. Both in-person and digital safe spaces help build community, whether it’s in an educational setting, the workplace or even nightlife.

Dale Morenx is a queer person of color living in San Luis Obispo. We heard from her in last week’s episode talking about how hard it was to adapt to the predominantly straight and white Cal Poly campus when she arrived there as a student three years ago. But she did begin to find some connection.

"Slowly but surely, as I began to navigate the community itself, because — not just like tourism, but actually like becoming part of the community — I was able to find small pockets of sub-cultures that do the salsa dancing, they do the tacos, you know," Morenx said. "So it was a very difficult at first, and as I began to connect with the community itself, I was able to find myself in it. But it was definitely a big shock."

Morenx said connecting with other queer people of color was a safe space for her, but she also found a “brave space” where she could fully be herself. It’s an art organization called Art and Soul, which she calls her “little heaven.” Art and Soul curates pop-up art fairs, drag nights, and other inclusive events in San Luis Obispo.

Morenx said Art and Soul’s cofounder Faith LeGrande welcomed her into the community and encouraged her to express herself.

"There's people like Faith that are holding space for people like me, giving me the opportunity to even just shine a light on me," Morenx said. "Because as soon as she shined a light on me and took the opportunity to shout me out, then people were like, ‘You want to be on my pop-up, you want to be on my pop-up?’ So sometimes it does take that one ally to, like, hold space for you when you can create it."

Faith LeGrande said like Morenx, it took some time for her to find a queer community here in SLO County, too. She grew up as a missionary in Asia and said she wanted to live for herself after graduating high school. She was diagnosed with chronic conditions that made her want to seek a new start with new friends and a new chosen family.

"We're loud and proud about the queer culture, but how can we be more loud and proud about BIPOC culture and make sure they know that this is a safe space for them too?"
Faith LeGrande, founder of Art and Soul

"I guess growing up, it was definitely a very heteronormative lifestyle is shoved in my face through Christian traditions and everything," LeGrande said. "And then when I moved to America, my brother had come out as gay. And I saw my family's reactions to that, and I saw our community's reactions. And I never felt like I was a lesbian — I felt like I was bi."

When LeGrande saw how harshly her brother was treated once he came out, she wanted to be there for him as much as possible and make him comfortable — especially at home. Her queer awakening happened while she was on a date with a guy.

"Throughout that relationship, I realized I still have, attraction to women, but I've never admitted that to myself. And so then I was actually on, a Valentine's date with my boyfriend at the time, of two years. And I was like, I need to tell you something. I think I'm bisexual. And he was like, ‘I've known that.’ And I was like, ‘What?’"

LeGrande began to understand and explore more about herself. She soon realized shortly after that she wasn't bisexual but related more with the term pansexual, meaning she can be attracted to anyone, regardless of the person's gender identity or expression.

"And so then I started understanding pansexuality more," LeGrande said. "And then the more that I understood myself and my personal traumas and the ways that I had gone about relationships, I realized that I was asexual but I was panromantic. And I was like, there's all these terms, and I keep changing it."

LeGrande said embracing her queer identity and coming out underscored the need for LGBTQ+ spaces in San Luis Obispo County. She said the need for brave spaces of community building and solidarity were the reasons she started Art and Soul.

"I knew that I kind of have this knack for building community," LeGrande said. "And so I wanted to utilize that to help other people find their chosen families, and find their community, and have a safe space each month where they could gather with the queer community and other BIPOC folks, and just meet the more diverse side of SLO, because it's so minimal here."

LeGrande said her first Art and Soul event had around 15 vendors, live music and performance artists. She called it “wholesome.”

What was then a small gathering among friends has become a bustling fair that’s now hosted at bigger locations, like Bliss Cafe and Bang the Drum Brewery. Now officially approved as a nonprofit, the once homegrown events have gotten bigger than LeGrande said she ever imagined.

The Art and Soul event in March 2023.
Eric Mattson
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The Art and Soul event in March 2023.

"It's been a blessing to be hosting downtown this past year, because that’s a very central spot for a lot of the college students, a lot of people passing through," LeGrande said. "I want people to be able to connect more with the other people that are struggling with this aloneness and to find solidarity with each other, and knowing that we have these unique experiences."

Art and Soul partners with groups like Gala Pride and Diversity Center and Big Balsz Productions, which help put on LGBTQ+ events in the area. LeGrande said they’re all working towards the same goal of creating safe, brave, spaces. Her hope for Art and Soul is to expand beyond the City of San Luis Obispo and into areas where fewer LGBTQ+ events happen, like northern and southern SLO County.

"We have been in conversation with a couple of queer coffee shops in Morro Bay about having mini markets there," LeGrande said. "And that's kind of like what I want to plan for over the summer is to find little pockets around SLO County within North County and South County where we could have little pop-up markets at these other places, so that we can bring more business to these queer coffee shops and create a market that would bring more business to the coffee shops. And so in turn, providing us community safe space outside of Downtown SLO."

LeGrande said a big part of her vision is ensuring that Art and Soul’s events are inclusive to people of color. She’s gearing up for Pride Prom on May 20, which will be for high school students. She said she’ll be focusing on that kind of inclusion at the prom, but is working to make it more prominent in all of her events.

"What can we be doing for the BIPOC community year-round to make sure that's loud and proud, as well, throughout the year, and not just the queer culture? But these are like the baby steps that, like, we're in right now, with how the organization has just grown," LeGrande said. "So it's like, yes, we're loud and proud about the queer culture, but how can we be more loud and proud about BIPOC culture and make sure they know that this is a safe space for them too?"

Drag shows offer another kind of safe space for some. Eli LeClair is a preschool teacher and a drag performer in their free time. They struggled to find a community their first year as a Cal Poly student. They visited LGBTQ+ groups on campus, POC groups, and the pride center, but still didn’t feel they had found their tribe.

Then they discovered Queer Prom, which inspired them to be brave and try drag themselves.

"I had just seen my friend live perform, and so then I was like, 'Okay, I have this opportunity right here and, like, I have this inspiration. Let me just get started,'" LeGrande said. "And then once I got started, it was such a welcoming entrance."

LeClair said yard sale-style craft fairs are another brave space for queer people of color in SLO County. They started visiting craft sales in the area, and slowly began to find other queer artists. It made them realize there are more LGBTQ+ people in SLO County than they initially thought.

Portraits at the Art and Soul event in March 2023.
Erick Mattson
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Portraits at the Art and Soul event in March 2023.

"Craft sales kind of started to evolve, at least in my experience going to them," LeClair said. "A lot of them started off as literally just, ‘hey, my friend is [having a craft sale] and their friends have a bunch of art they need to get rid of, so they're gonna sell it yard sale-style.’ And it kind of started becoming where people were developing consistent events in their backyard or their friend's backyard."

Events like those backyard sales, Art & Soul and Queer Prom give people the space to explore their queerness in the safety of community. As the rapidly growing Art and Soul continues to expand, the next question is how to make spaces more accepting for other marginalized communities who may not identify solely as LGBTQ+. Faith LeGrande said the best way is to create a space that’s loud, proud, and brave for all.

"I think even to have a brave space to create art for yourself to sit down and mess around in this sketchbook or to pick up or to decide to sign up as a vendor or decide to sign up as a drag artist or a live musician, it's creating a brave space for somebody to come in and express themselves," LeGrande said.

"And [they] know that the community, the environment there is going to encourage them, even though it's their first time, even though they've only been doing it a couple months or a couple of weeks. It's like, ‘we're here for you, because you're being there for you.’ And we love to see that."

In next week’s episode, we’ll profile another brave space for queer people of color in SLO County, “Let There Be Lesbians,” which throws queer parties across the Central Coast. We’ll talk to its creator Reese Galido about the need for Lesbian spaces at a time when queer spaces for women are being erased. That's next time on In Between.

In Between is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation 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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