Compton's First Ever Pride Festival Is This Weekend

(Photo by Guillaume Paumier/Flickr CC)

When Hugo Cervantes was 18 years old, he made the pilgrimage to the neon bustle of West Hollywood to see Lady Gaga perform at Micky's, a bar in the heart of Boystown. It was a long way from his home in Compton but Gaga was one of his favorite singers and she was in town for one night. Unlike Compton, WeHo was teeming with gay bars, rainbow flags and men being openly affectionate. On his first trip to Los Angeles's gay mecca, Cervantes hoped he would feel a kinship with other men. Instead, he left feeling uncomfortable.

"I just had a bad experience," Cervantes says. "That was the first time I was explicitly surrounded by older white gay people. It was very jarring."

For Cervantes, finding a queer community meant leaving his Compton neigbhorhood, where there are few queer spaces save for a handful of health organizations serving disadvantaged youth. To find a queer community, Cervantes would have to travel long distances, either 22 miles north to West Hollywood or 11 miles south to Long Beach.

"It's difficult to get around in South L.A.," says Cervantes who now frequents the queer nightlife scene in East Los Angeles. Making the trip out of South L.A. was "a whole ass mission," not just for him but for all of his peers who relied on public transportation. This week, however, instead of trekking to find queer community in other parts of the Southland, he is staying home, celebrating the queerness of Compton. On Saturday, July 6, the city will host the first ever Compton Pride festival.

"It's hard to start these spaces but Compton having this pride is so radical," says queer Latinx rapper and community builder Figgy Baby, who will perform during Saturday's festival. "For everyone I tell, it blows their mind."

Rapper Figgy Baby will perform at the first Compton Pride Festival on Saturday, July 6, 2019. (Courtesy of Figgy Baby)

THE ROOTS OF PRIDE

In contrast to many corporate-funded, alcohol-fueled Pride festivals, Compton Pride was envisioned as a grassroots event to honor the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Fitting since the Stonewall riots began with the help of two Black and Latina trans activists, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who until recent years had often been sidelined in gay rights history. The family-oriented event is drug- and alcohol-free. It's also free to attend because organizers want the event to be as accessible as possible. Organized by Princess Murray, a community advocate at Star View Children and Family Services, the festival was put together by a team of 80 volunteers who spent more than a year coordinating with sponsors and conducting community outreach.

Held at Compton College, it will feature a lineup of Black and Latinx queer performers and speakers including trans Latina singer Luna Lovebad, actress and rapper Bre-Z and Jewel Thais-Williams, the impresario behind historic black gay dance hall Jewel's Catch One.

"When you're working with communities that live in poverty or disadvantaged communities, you learn that these communities do not have the resources or the knowledge to go out and get the resources that they need," Murray told Marketplace. "You have to bring resources to them."

Josephine Wallace, a mental health supervisor at Star View and one of the volunteers for Compton Pride, says that many of the foster youth she works with face stigma for being queer or trans.

"If you're a black, queer teenage woman," Wallace says, "you're at risk in a different way. The stakes are higher."

In the predominantly Black and Latinx city of Compton, 23% of people live below the poverty line and 2% live with HIV/AIDS so the festival is an opportunity for South L.A. residents to access queer-friendly health and wellness resources. More than 100 organizations including Kaiser Permanente, the Black Aids Institute and Planned Parenthood will have booths at the event.

Wallace notes that in organizing Compton Pride, community safety was a concern. Volunteers reached out to local gangs in hopes of avoiding violence. As Compton is a heavily policed area, the team opted for security guards instead of LAPD officers.

"We're trying to promote safety, positive self esteem and education," Wallace says. "We want to bring an opportunity for young people, particularly, to be able to celebrate their identity and community."

1956: "Burcey with her brothers Frank and Joseph, mother Azzielee, and sister Jerri and father, Donald, in front of the family home in Compton. The family lived in the home for 22 years, from 1950-1972." (Shades of L.A. Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

ILLUMINATING QUEER HISTORY

Around the world, Compton is famous for producing musicians such as Kendrick Lamar and N.W.A. and athletes like Serena Williams and Byron Davis. The city also known for its violent history with gangs and police violence. Back in the 1950s and '60s, however, Compton was a largely middle class black city.

Many black families who had come from the South during the Great Migration settled in Compton and South L.A. Compton began to cultivate a booming, music and nightlife scene. The city was home to a number of queer hotspots including Mr. Sandman and the Reno Club, two queer friendly jazz clubs that lined Long Beach Blvd. and Atlantic Ave., according to the Queer Terrains project at USC's ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.

After the Watts Riots of 1965 and again after the riots in 1992, the city experienced a wave of violence that prompted many middle class families to leave. As they moved to other neighborhoods, local cultural institutions declined.

Although ONE's archives contain evidence of Compton's queer past, it's still largely invisible in broader discussions about South L.A. In fact, to conduct research on South L.A.'s forgotten queer history, you have to travel outside its bounds.

"I think about how queer clubs have existed in South L.A. forever, but they're just ephemeral spaces, only lasting for a day," Cervantes says. He looked into the area's queer history after watching Leilah Weinraub's 2018 documentary Shakedown, about black lesbian strip club culture in South Central.

Many of Los Angeles's most prominent queer institutions are north of the 10, in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods. Queer folks living below this racialized dividing line have to leave their community — often spending long hours on the bus and risking violence and racism to do so — or create their own spaces. Either way, Corey Crowell, a 24-year-old queer black man, believes that it's clear areas like WeHo "were not built for us."

That doesn't surprise Figgy Baby. They grew up in conservative Orange County, where the lack of queer institutions wasn't dissimilar to the situation in Compton. Figgy says that for residents of South L.A. and other marginalized communities, being out and proud can be precarious. The threat of violence, both from outside and inside the community, looms.

"When I think about who is running these spaces, it tends to be white gay men," Figgy says. "They still exist with a certain amount of privilege, resources and safety to live a bit more shamelessly in their truth." Yet, the creation of a Black and Latinx-oriented Pride festival, backed by civic institutions, makes Figgy excited about a new era of queer, POC-centered culture in South L.A.

A native of Watts, Crowell only heard about the festival last week. Like Figgy, it gives him more hope for the future of his hometown.

"I'm elated that the city of Compton is open to having something like this and celebrating queer people of color in our own community," he says. "It's finally a step in the right direction, in my own backyard."

A man covered with a rainbow flag attends the gay pride parade in Bogota, Colombia on June on 30, 2019. (DANIEL MUNOZ/AFP/Getty Images)