Meet Local LGBTQ Freedom Fighters As They Prepare for the 2019 OC Pride Festival

Photo by Federico Medina

The first Orange County Pride Cultural Festival was a rather small affair in Santa Ana during the summer of 1989, but the event’s roots actually date back 20 years earlier—to New York City. A police raid of Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969, led to spontaneous and violent demonstrations by members of the gay community. Those events 50 years ago led to the creation of Pride Month, as well as annual celebrations across the country, during which rainbow-colored LGBT liberation flags proudly wave.

However, the first OC Pride, like Stonewall, was marred by violence—not from attendees, but from anti-LGBTQ goons who crashed the party. Law enforcement ordered Pride organizers to lock the festival gates temporarily as they considered shutting down the event. Attendees waited it out like caged animals before authorities finally deemed it safe for the Pride festival to continue.

Photo by Federico Medina

OC Pride eventually moved to Irvine but dissolved in the early 2000s. Credit the 2009 passage of Proposition 8, the state ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage in California, with re-igniting the fire that led to the formation of the Orange County Equality Coalition and the return of Pride events in Orange County. They have since grown by leaps and bounds, and in 2012, OC Pride returned to its birthplace in downtown Santa Ana, where more than 8,000 attendees turned out (and, in some cases, came out!). Two years later, Orange County LGBT Pride Inc. was incorporated, and volunteer officers and directors have run OC Pride ever since.

All love, no hate. Photo by Federico Medina

Attendance surpassed the 20,000 mark a few years back, and the festival and other large and small events sponsored by OC Pride in non-Pride months have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charitable causes. About 25,000 festival-goers are expected in SanTana on June 22 for OC Pride 2019. Its theme, “Stand Up Stand Out,” is “inspired by the exciting changes, milestones and accomplishments in the name of LGBT rights,” according to organizers.

OC Weekly introduces you to just some of the many Orange Countians who have helped bring about those changes, milestones and accomplishments. Despite marriage equality, LGBTQ clubs in high schools and the rising acceptance of the LGBT community throughout the country, each freedom fighter will tell you why Pride remains just as vital now as it did 50 years ago at Stonewall and 30 years ago at the first Orange County festival.

Photo by Chele Jones Photography

OC Pride 2019 Grand Marshal
Growing up in South Orange County, Brit Cervantes didn’t always know where he fit in. Assigned female at birth, he eschewed playing with dolls as a young child, preferring football and climbing trees with his brother. Later, Cervantes felt his body betrayed him, especially at the awkwardness that is puberty. At 16, he came out as gay to his family, but something about that didn’t seem quite right nor was it immediately embraced by them (and South County ain’t exactly the most LGBT-affirming place to be, either). Four years later, Cervantes understood himself as transgender and became an advocate.

It’s an identity and calling he now deems a gift, especially with the OC Pride community that has become like family.

The feeling is mutual, with Cervantes being announced as this year’s grand marshal for OC Pride, an honor bestowed largely thanks to his pivotal work as program coordinator for the UC Irvine Health Pediatric Gender Diversity Program. “It actually still feels pretty unreal to me,” he says. “I never expected to be nominated, let alone elected as grand marshal. Normally, I’m watching the parade, so it’ll be fun to be in it.”

Started in January 2017, the Gender Diversity Program Cervantes promotes offers gender-affirming hormone therapy, puberty suppression, counseling, community connections and support to youth up to the age of 26. Three physicians are enlisted: a pediatrician, an endocrinologist and a psychiatrist.

“It’s currently OC’s only program dedicated to caring for transgender and gender-diverse youth,” says Cervantes. “One of the most important parts of our program is provider education. We’ll go out to different spaces both in and outside UCI, and we’ll provide lectures and information on how best to care for trans and gender-diverse patients.”

For Cervantes, that outreach comes informed by personal experiences, ones formed largely before the benefits of the program he now boosts. When speaking to medical providers or guidance counselors at schools, Cervantes identifies himself as trans. It’s a personal choice, one not often afforded to transgender people at the doctor’s office.

“When it comes to trying to access a medical transition, trans folks are forced to out themselves,” he says. “We have no idea if physicians are going to be affirming or not, but we have to take the chance.” And it’s definitely a risk when refusal of care happens often for a myriad of reasons.

Advocacy is definitely in dire need. Cervantes found his own way through involvement with Trans Pride, the LGBT Center of Orange County, and its Trans*itions Health & Wellness program. About three years ago, he had the opportunity to join the Gender Diversity Program. “It started with having a vision of serving my community,” says Cervantes. “Now I get to do that for a living, and it’s been a really incredible experience.”

He’ll be using the platform of being OC Pride’s grand marshal to continue elevating issues from his community. That’s just one reason among many why Pride still matters.

“It’s important for people struggling with their identity to see that there’s a community here, one that can be very loving and supportive,” says Cervantes. “Being out and proud, if it’s safe to do so, can be very life-changing. That’s what Pride is.” (Gabriel San Román)

Photo courtesy Robert Casas

Board President, Orange County LGBT Pride Inc.
Robert Casas checks all the boxes for someone raised in Orange County. High school in Buena Park—check! Cal State Fullerton—check! Worked at Disneyland as a performer and even took his act to Tokyo Disneyland Resort—whatever the word is for check in Japanese!

He is now a real-estate professional and tireless advocate for the welfare of animals, having raised money to fund everything from pet adoptions to animal-cruelty awareness. It’s a background that serves Casas well as president of Orange County LGBT Pride’s Board of Directors, where he focuses on creating a community through education, advocacy and celebration.

In April, Casas was recognized for his efforts in uniting the LGBT community with the Dennis & Judy Shepard Award. But such accolades do not fool him into believing he should slow down.

“Pride is still 100 percent vital and necessary today,” he says. “We are faced with a lot of challenges on a daily basis, especially with the direction that our current administration has taken on the LGBT+ community. But what I have witnessed, as president of Orange County Pride, is a community full of support, love and perseverance, and I am proud to be part of it.”

Asked to identify who springs to mind when thinking about the importance of Pride, Casas replies, “I feel like, for our festival in particular, it’s a lot of our youth who are impacted the most because ours is a free event unlike other Prides in Southern California. It gives them an event to express themselves and feel safe doing so. When kids feel like they are accepted, they do much better in life once they become adults.” (Matt Coker)

Manny Muro. Photo by @meepamena

HIV Prevention Educator, RADAR
Manny Muro knows all too well there’s no easy way to tell someone they’re HIV positive. As the HIV Prevention Educator at the nonprofit organization RADAR in Santa Ana, he’s had to do this. A lot.

“I love my job, and it is very fun,” the Huntington Beach resident says, “but you’re also dealing with the person in front of you, and sometimes, you have to tell them information that they don’t want to hear. Some people cry; some people get angry. You can live a long life with HIV, but you have to get treatment. I put myself in their shoes, and I act the way I’d want someone to tell me. You’re not there for yourself—you’re there for that person. Sometimes you have to take the rest of the day off. Sometimes you have to cry. But I’m actually lucky to be there. I’ve met so many wonderful people. I’m really grateful to be there.”

Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RADAR (which has just four employees, including Muro) provides HIV education and testing. It treats its clients with dignity and compassion. “Our priority is to reduce the transmission of HIV infection, specifically with Latino men who have sex with men,” says Muro, who was named Mr. Gay Pride Orange County in 2016. “We only serve Orange County. We facilitate groups for people living with HIV. We don’t just talk about HIV prevention; we talk about mental health, homophobia. We do STI testing, HIV testing [and] condom distribution and link people to care. My present role is linking people to prevention systems.”

RADAR also does outreach. It had a presence at the AIDS Walk in Huntington Beach on June 1, and Muro emceed the event. It’ll be at the upcoming Pride event, getting people tested. Sometimes, RADAR personnel go to bars and clubs in Orange County and provide free HIV testing.

“I wasn’t fulfilled in my last job, which was in corporate America,” Muro says. “I used to volunteer, and then a position came up here. I thought, ‘I’m just going to apply.’ I didn’t think I’d get the job, and then I ended up getting it. I had to take a pay cut, but I think I made the right decision.”

Muro knows his job isn’t easy—especially given that the latest data from the Orange County Health Care Agency shows that Santa Ana still has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the county. “That’s why our office is in Santa Ana,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons: lack of health care, lack of education, immigration status. There’s also a large homeless population and drug use. Latino gay men have a one-in-four chance of getting HIV, and that’s why I’m doing this.” (Anthony Pignataro)

Photo courtesy Angel Bonilla

Owner, WTF Events
Angel Bonilla has been planning and coordinating club events since he was 18 years old. At the time, the San Diego native had noticed that nightlife for LGBT crowds was sparse, so he started putting together his own to provide safe spaces for non-hetero party-goers. After moving to Orange County in 2014, he found that options were limited here, too—save for a few hotspots such as VLVT Lounge and the Tin Lizzy.

So he began organizing weekly dance parties through his promotion company, WTF Events, at Costa Mesa’s now-defunct Shark Club, then expanded to other venues across Orange County, San Diego, Long Beach and West Hollywood. Featuring appearances by exceptional DJs and noted drag-queen performers such as RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Adore Delano, WTF quickly became a popular option for night owls wanting to revel in hot, thumping electronic sounds; strong cocktails; and, most of all, a safe space for LGBT folks to just be themselves. And with a gradual ascent into booking bigger DJs and big-name talents who weren’t previously disposed to OC nightlife, even straight allies come forth to rave.

WTF is now the official event producer for OC Pride’s grand after-parties, including one at Time Nightclub Saturday night with headlining DJ Laidback Luke, as well as a second Sunday night at the Circle in Huntington Beach. There, guests can rub elbows with OC Pride pageant winners and performers.

On the horizon, WTF will be producing events for Strut, an up-and-coming nightclub, and featuring more events at Time on Fridays and Saturdays—something unprecedented for LGBT raves when the now-30-year-old Bonilla started putting together parties. As recently as six years ago, “club owners didn’t allow gay events at their bars on Fridays or Saturdays because they thought it would affect their clientele,” he explains. “But now, the community is growing, so owners are allowing more events; I wouldn’t have thought we’d do events on a Friday or Saturday at Time, since it’s OC’s premier nightclub.”

Bonilla still sees the importance of Pride and is working with Pride organizations to ensure dancers are partying with meaning. “Pride is important on so many levels,” he says. “It’s a safe space for people to celebrate, be themselves, connect with old friends [and] new friends, show unity and show that it gets better.” (Aimee Murillo)

Photo of Endora by Wednesday Aja

Entertainer, Chanteuse and Diva Hostess
Terry Redding has become a staple of Laguna Beach’s LBGTQ community. Raised in the Mt. Hood area of Oregon, he started playing piano at age 5, received voice training during high school (where he was a theater nerd), and began performing as an adult in community theater. And a little more than four years ago, his drag alter ego “Endora” arrived at Main Street Bar and Cabaret, which is billed as the last gay bar in Laguna Beach.

For years, Laguna Beach was home to Orange County’s largest gay population. It was also home to California’s first openly gay mayor, Robert Gentry, who joined the City Council in 1982, was appointed mayor the following year and served in the office for three terms. Another Laguna resident, Fred Karger, says Gentry inspired him to run for president as a Republican in 2012.

But rising home prices shrank the city’s LGBTQ community, with many relocating to the Coachella Valley. So Redding—and Endora—fill two roles in Laguna Beach: reminding people of a storied past while entertaining them in the present day. On Wednesdays, Endora hosts Drag Bingo at Main Street Bar, and on Fridays, you can see the lively, improvised cabaret show “Endora’s Dress Rehearsal,” featuring musical collaborator Tony Tanner.

As a Pride Festival fixture, Redding is a strong advocate for what the celebration stands for. “I’m very proud to be gay, and in many ways, I feel my generation helped pave the way for youth being able to come out and be accepted at a much earlier age than my peers and I were able to,” he says. “It was a lot different 34 years ago when I came out; I had friends whose families disowned them for being gay! We’ve come a long way and continue to fight for our rights.” (Wednesday Aja)

Photo of Zai courtesy of Zeke Ortiz

Fashion Designer and Pride Superhero
Orange County designer Zeke Ortiz has cultivated a following within the drag scene for his expertise in tailoring and pattern-making to create a myriad of striking silhouettes and experimental costumes for the LGBTQ community.

His schedule is hectic. Not only does he sew for a lot of the painted queens throughout Southern California, but he also performs as Zai at Hamburger Mary’s, Mozambique and the Executive Suite in Long Beach. “My drag persona is a Pride superhero come to life,” he says.

A self-proclaimed cosplay nerd, Ortiz says he finds inspiration for his pieces in video games and comic-book characters. “[Zai is] a character I’ve created in my head,” he explains, “and every time I get into drag, I feel like it’s another opportunity for her to come out and have fun.”

Photo and design by Federico Medina

Ortiz’s exploration into design began early in his drag career. He felt the outfits he wore didn’t reflect his personal style, and he had a difficult time finding unique ensembles. So he started testing different looks, in the process developing his signature gaming-themed drag designs. While self-taught, Ortiz created his eponymous line with the intention of helping people feel confident and better able to fully express themselves.

As the festival approaches, he’s wrapping up the final details on custom pieces commissioned just for Pride. “I’m excited to have way more looks out there than I did last year,” Ortiz says. “I love seeing the reactions on people’s faces when they see themselves in their costumes for the first time—it’s the best feeling.”

You can find Ortiz on Instagram @zeke.zai and @deZAIgnsbyZeke. (Cynthia Rebolledo)

6 Replies to “Meet Local LGBTQ Freedom Fighters As They Prepare for the 2019 OC Pride Festival”

    1. But you read the entire article , didnt you , Jeff Baker? And then because you couldn’t get enough, you then went back to look again at the beautiful humans featured and used it as an excuse to leave another comment. You were distracted enough, Jeff Baker, to not be able to form coherent thoughts so you you left that same comment again. Oh Jeff. You too, are welcome at Pride. Dont worry, your secret longing is safe with us.

  1. Freedom Fighters? ?Nah, just sexually different. Too bad this community doesn’t seem to understand that their sexuality is being used by the Democratic Nazi Party for their own political gain. Then again the comical carcass that is OCWEAKLY needed some sort of sensational (fake) headline to entertain the 100 or so readers they have.

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