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SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- They make a difference in our lives. Some are well-known activists in San Diego's LGBT community and others are working tirelessly outside the spotlight.
Thirteen key players in the LGBT community will be honored Friday Feb. 11 at the 2011 Heroes, Pioneers and Trailblazers gala. The event takes place at the Center and is sponsored by Lambda Archives of San Diego (LASD).
In the days leading up to the gala, SDGLN will profile each of these individuals and provide our readers with an inside peak at what this award means to each honoree.
2011 Heroes, Pioneers, and Trailblazers honoree: Larry Baza
Larry Baza is a native San Diegan of Mexican and Chamorro (Guamanian) descent. He graduated from San Diego High School in 1962. In his senior year, Baza became involved with the civil rights, Chicano and anti-Vietnam War movements.
"The anti-Vietnam War movement seriously kicked in for me," Baza said. "I was facing a draft and I opposed the war, because I don’t think wars solve anything. Back then, the draft threatened mainstream America, and the possibility that you would have to go to Vietnam and potentially die was very real. Unlike today; most people don’t worry about having to go to Iraq."
His father served in the U.S. Navy and came to San Diego from Guam (an unincorporated territory of the U.S.) in 1943, where he met Baza’s mother, a third-generation Mexican American, downtown. Despite their very "American" lives back then, both of his parents faced racial discrimination.
"The racism and prejudice endured by Mexicans was no secret. I was very well aware from the time that I was a child that I was different and didn’t fit into mainstream ‘white’ America," Baza said. "Naturally, I gravitated towards civil rights in high school, but really got more involved with the Chicano movement in my early 20’s.
"When I was in school there were Mexicans, a few blacks, and a tiny minority of Asians. The Mexican Americans however began to stretch their muscles, gain self-pride, and [were] sought out higher education. It was a process, and the Chicano movement stressed and still does, taking pride in who we are.”
The national civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. also impacted Baza's political upbringing, and he credits the combination of all those experiences for influencing him greatly when he came out of the closet.
The Road to Acceptance
Coming out was a slow process for Baza. He had been married to a woman, with whom he is still friends today, for five years.
"I know for women it’s different, but like a lot of men who are really homosexual, I was in denial, and especially during my marriage, I assumed I was bisexual," Baza said. "At the age of 30, I came to realize and accept that I was homosexual."
Baza alluded to the way the gay community was treated back then, as part of the reason it took him so long.
"My parents were both really strong Catholics," he said. "I was raised to have a family and be a parent. When I finally came out of the closet, it was a shocker to them."
Although his brother Ronnie was supportive (Baza believes Lonnie knew he was gay even before he did), his mother had all the typical responses - she urged him to see a shrink, told him he was confused, pointed out all his previous girlfriends, his marriage - she really felt that his feelings would go away.
"I told her, 'I have seen a shrink, it’s not going to go away – this is who I am',” Baza said.
His mother requested that he not tell his father until he was "absolutely sure," a request Baza has now come to understand as his mother’s way of protecting his father. Ronnie, however, urged him to speak to his father.
"My brother stressed that my father loved me and that my mom was not always right about everything," Baza said. "It really meant a lot to me to hear that from my brother and it gave me the courage to speak to my dad. When I told my dad, all he said was, ‘you are my son and I love and will always love you. You have always made me proud and I expect you will continue to do so.’ It was a tremendous relief."
Both of his parents have since passed, but they were very accepting of Baza and his partner Tom Noel, with whom he will celebrate 27 years in May. He called it a "beautiful dynamic" and specifically recalled one visit fondly.
Baza was in the kitchen with his mother, helping her prepare the food and catching up on family gossip. From the kitchen window, he and his mother could see Noel in the yard with his father talking and admiring the green beans in the vegetable garden.
"My mother said to me, ‘look at them – you could not have done better than this’ and it was a very lovely thing to hear, I felt we were very blessed," Baza said.
The LGBT Movement, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Baza’s early experience in the fledgling "Gay Liberation Movement," began with the fight over California's Proposition 6 (commonly known as the Briggs Initiative) in 1978.
"The Briggs Initiative galvanized a lot of people," he said. "There were great allies in the straight community too, because it meant every teacher could be accused of just being gay and lose their job – so a progressive movement built around it.”
For his part, Baza joined a group of gay men who gathered signatures and helped to get the vote out.
"In those days, we didn’t have places like The Center today. We had to go to bars to reach out to the LGBT community. We would speak to the owners, set up our tables, and do our part to educate registered voters. In those days, it was some of the most fun I had. It was a huge deal when it was defeated.
"The LGBT movement has, in its 40+ years, made tremendous strides forward. As a minority group that came together during the Stonewall Riots, to seeing DADT repealed, I am witnessing things I did not think I would see in my lifetime. I never thought I would have a conversation for marriage equality in the U.S.," he said.
Concerning marriage equality, Baza has worked on campaigns, marched, and done everything that he can, but he is most impressed with the way Proposition 8 galvanized the LGBT youth.
"It’s interesting to me that marriage was the issue that got the youth out in force and not the issues our community has faced in recent years," he said. "I think it’s because for many of them, it was the first time they were told they could not have something.
"I noticed a lot of Anglo youth leading the charge, and I think that by virtue of their skin color, if they were not obvious about their sexuality, they could pass and enjoy great freedoms, but for once in their lives, like me, and people of color, they felt the sting of not being able to have something.
“They are of course rightfully outraged, and I am happy to see the LGBT youth invigorated. All of this too will pass and maybe in my lifetime I will see marriage equality.”
Although Baza and Noel could have married in 2008 before Proposition 8 took that right away, they chose not to, because they didn't feel they needed a document to acknowledge their commitment. They are lucky enough to have full support of both of their families and have been proactive enough to take advantage of the legal options available to protect their estates.
"Without the Federal recognition, marriage does not hold value to us. I don’t mean to demean it, I respect the desire of those fighting to obtain it, but Tom and I don’t need a piece of paper that is only good in the state of California."
As far as the future of LGBT rights, Baza plans to be involved as long as he is able, but feels that the torch is passing onto the next generation.
Baza has this message for the LGBT youth:
"The civil rights struggle never ends. The woman’s right to choose for example, is always under attack. Make no mistake, that as long as their are Christians and people of strong faith, someone will always look to make minorities, gay people, etc. a wedge issue.
"The more we know about the struggles of the past, the more prepared we are about the struggles for the future. Civil rights are a lifelong struggle. I am counting on all of them to take a little bit of what we have done and make it their own, moving the LGBT lifestyle forward."
Legacies and the Arts
Having a multi-cultural background, Baza has also been a lifelong lover of culture and the arts and he found a way to mix that passion with his activism. He produced the Artists for Aids Assistance in 1979, the first major AIDS fundraiser in the arts community, which involved over 20 arts organizations.
"I am very proud of that," Baza said. "I knew several men who were either musicians or theatre people who died from AIDS. Everyone was raising [money] in lots of different ways to help, but no one in the San Diego arts community was doing anything.
"No one got paid. Everyone worked for free, and the LGBT community, as well as straight allies, really stepped up to the plate."
Artists for Aids Assistance raised $8,000, engaged the community, and helped to dispel the "gay disease stigma." By all accounts, Baza called it a great success.
A former board member of San Diego Pride for seven years, Baza has also served as co-chair of Pride with Vertez Burkes, as the first people of color to hold those positions. He has been honored by the San Diego Democratic Club, Gay/Lesbian Latinos con Orgullo, and by Mayor Dick Murphy’s LGBT Advisory Board.
An arts administrator for 31 years, Baza has served as both executive director and administrator of the County of San Diego’s Public Arts Advisory Council, Community Arts of San Diego, California Pacific Theater, Sushi Performance & Visual Art, and the Centro Cultural de La Raza.
He has also served on grant panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the San Diego Commission for Arts & Culture, the San Diego Community Foundation and the San Diego Foundation for Change.
Baza has served on the boards of The National Performance Network, San Diego Performing Arts League, San Diego Coalition for Arts & Culture, San Diego Youth and Community Services, and San Diego LGBT Pride. He was appointed to the City of San Diego’s Civic Events & Promotional Programs Allocation Board by then City Council Member Christine Kehoe and was the first openly gay man to serve on the Chicano Federation’s board of directors.
Currently, he serves as executive vice president of the San Diego Democratic Club, is a board member of Honor Pac (a Statewide Latino LGBT Political Action Committee), an advisory committee member of the Women’s History Museum, a member of The Center’s Latino Services Advisory Council, and is a member of the grant making committee of the San Diego Foundation for Change.
Despite all of his years of activism, Baza feels there is one organization that is the most significant for LGBT rights – Lambda Archives.
"I really wish the Chicano movement in San Diego had archives, but we in the LGBT community have the archives that will tell people who folks like Jerri Dilno was," Baza said. "What these LGBT folks did to [help] secure the kinds of rights and the movement is extremely important. A place like the archives, where the documents and story of our struggle is maintained, is as relevant to the future as it is preserving the knowledge of the past."
About being honored as one of the Heroes, Pioneers, and Trailblazers Baza expressed great pride and honor.
"I am of course grateful and happy to be among a wide group of people who have played a role in our community in a variety of areas in a variety of ways," he said. "All of these men and women have contributed something to get us to the point where we are now and everyone has given of themselves in a wonderful way for our advancement.
"All of the honorees in one way or another have made it possible for young lesbian or gay couples to walk down the street and be able to hold hands without being met with scorn. I am also extremely happy that seven of the 12 people [to be honored] are part of the Democratic Club.
"It affirms for me the quality and the nature and the boldness and the community spirit of the people who belong to the same political affiliation that has been struggling for GLBT rights for 35 years. And although I feel that Democrats have always been more accepting and sympathetic to LGBT struggles, that too, is slowly changing in the Republican party."
About Lambda Archives of San Diego (LASD)
LASD’s mission is to "collect, preserve and teach" the history of LGBT people in the San Diego and Northern Baja California region. Although most of the collections date to post-1970, there are original materials dating back to the 1930s.
LASD believes that history is best served by the records and cultural artifacts of those people who are directly involved in its events, so its staff has dedicated itself to preserving and interpreting this important historical record since its establishment in 1987. LASD is an all-volunteer, nonprofit corporation governed by a volunteer board of directors and has one of the largest collections of LGBT history in the country.
LASD honoree selection process
The fundraising gala -- which first debuted in 2007 -- recognizes individuals, both locally and nationally, who have made a difference in the lives of LGBT persons through their dedication, commitment, financial resources and/or political participation.
The LASD board chooses honorees based on a criterion that focuses on diversity, by including individuals from diverse segments of the community, and from a broad spectrum of individual characteristics such as ethnicity, race, LGBT identification, etc.
As is customary for the board, nominees who have received other major honors this year, or who could not attend the event, were held out for future consideration. Although no public call for nominations currently exists, the board considers any nomination from the community to be equal to those made by its members.
This year's list of nominees was narrowed down from 20 individuals to the 12 adults and one youth that were selected for recognition. Those that were not selected this year are automatically added to the list of people to be considered next year.
Previous honorees include business professionals, activists and people like state Sen. Christine Kehoe, Cleve Jones, Tom Reise, Fritz Klein and SDGLN contributor Ben Cartwright.
About this year's Gala
More people than ever before have already RSVP'd for the event, and the event's organizers say some "exciting" announcements are planned.
In addition, selections from Lambda's extensive exhibit at City Hall last summer, "A Celebration of LGBT History," will be on display in The Center's library the night of the event.