Andrew B.

I have spent the majority of my life living in conservative places. I grew up in Orange County in Southern California, in a multicultural city that values safety and education. However, this family-oriented suburbia started to show its true colors during the anti-same-sex-marriage Proposition 8 campaign in 2008, only a couple of years after I came out to my family as a lesbian. While my own family has been accepting of both my queer and transgender identity, I was raised to be vigilant and not divulge too much about myself. We are Jewish, and as one of my elder family members would sometimes say, “You never know who wants to kill you.”

I had a hard time swallowing this rhetoric as a guiding principle, and I have spent the majority of my adult life testing the boundaries of intersecting identities and seemingly exclusive spaces. To me, being visible and open about my experiences means a chance at nurturing ally-ship with those who might be unaware of the challenges and joys transgender folk encounter. By not trying to deepen my voice and by presenting myself in both masculine and feminine ways in public I try to send a message to those who are not visible that they are not alone.

I came out as a transgender man while I was living in Jerusalem, Israel, in 2014. I started taking testosterone a few months later. I was studying Torah, Talmud, and other classic texts in an egalitarian yeshiva, and I found strong support from my friends and most of the faculty present.

When I returned to the U.S., I began rabbinical school in Philadelphia and continued my studies among other queer and transgender students and faculty. Unfortunately, my world was about to turn upside down. In the fall of 2016, I started waking up with severe hot flashes throughout the night. I saw my doctors at the LGBTQ clinic and they confirmed that my symptoms were not related to my hormones. But, they had no answer about the symptoms’ source.

Over time the hot flashes increased in frequency and length. I would burn up for hours, and could walk in the snow in just a tee-shirt. I started having peculiar reactions to foods and products that I have always used. I lost my ability to enter a restful, deep sleep. My body was weakening and I couldn’t keep weight on. I saw many doctors, and time after time, they were distracted by my status as a transgender man and wanted to retest my hormones.

I went on medical leave from school and shortly after that I lost my ability to drive. To prove to my doctors that my symptoms were not related to testosterone, I stopped taking the hormone. The greatest disrespect and marginalization I have ever experienced has been trying to navigate conventional healthcare as a transgender person with a chronic illness. Unfortunately, I am not alone in this experience.

Ultimately, I needed to move back home to Orange County, where I’ve been living ever since. After many more failed attempts to get diagnosed, I went back on testosterone and started looking for doctors who work outside of a traditional medicine model. In April of 2019, I started going to a functional medicine clinic and was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease this last summer.

While there may be more months and even years of treatment ahead, I have come to peace with my disease and the fact that I will likely need to reside in Orange County until my health improves. I am fortunate and grateful to have a few other LGBTQ friends in the area, and I continue to have hope for the county as the number of queer events and publicly supportive organizations and businesses have increased.

Andrew B.
He, Him, His
Irvine, CA

Roman Agustin

Being born gay in Guanajuato, known as one of the most religious and conservative states in Mexico, was a challenge. Part of our childhood for us was very normal, but once we started school, things changed. We were bullied by other students and nobody cared to do anything about it. We both knew that the way to get us out of there was through education.

We were neighbors as kids but we got together when we finally left for college. We were relieved leaving our hometowns behind, but the bullying did not stop, and in the new city as young adults we were also targeted by the police for being gay. After several encounters with the police, roommates, and classmates, we decided to leave Mexico and come to the land of freedom, the United States of America.

We landed in Orange County, one of the most conservative places in the country. We thought that things would be different, but the bullying and discrimination started all over again. We were rejected by the Latino community for being gay, and we were rejected by the Caucasian community for being Latino and gay. We did not want to keep running so when we were told we could not be a couple, get married, or get the same opportunities as other people, we decided to fight back. Not only for us but for
the new generations to come.

Our first major task was to come out of the closet and tell our siblings and parents about ourselves and our relationship. We realized that by hiding we were sending the wrong message to society. Our second task was to be visible in the community among relatives, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, so we got married and told everyone about it. Introducing ourselves as husband and husband was shocking for many, but we learned that one powerful tool to cause change is to accept ourselves and be proud of who we are. We encouraged people to start looking at us for our character and our actions, and not for how society wants to identify us.

We learned that acceptance does not happen overnight. It takes time, but we must start with ourselves. This helped our families, social circle, and later our Orange County community accept us as gay men and a same-sex couple.

We have continued working in the Orange County community. We co-founded an organization called Orange County Equality Coalition and became part of their Latino outreach committee. Later we were part of the Story Telling committee where we were able to share our stories as gay men. For years, we advocated to have a Latino presence in Orange County Pride festival, and through art, we volunteered for El Centro Cultural de Mexico and Gay Neighbors, Families and Friends of Santa Ana. We create art with an LGBTQ and Mexican theme. We participate in Day of the Dead festivals by building altars honoring victims of hate crimes and speaking to audiences about such crimes. We know it is important to give visibility and a voice to those whom society tried to silence. We hope that this visibility can prevent our younger generations of LGBT and minority people from going through what we went through while we were trying to be ourselves.

Roman Beltran
Agustin Gaytan
Santa Ana, CA
He, Him



Beck L.

I was fortunate enough to live in the San Francisco Bay Area when I came out as trans and gender non-binary, so there was plenty of community and plenty of understanding in my social circles. At my work, there was never a question of my colleagues and friends not accepting my new name and pronouns. But all of that changed once I moved back to Southern California.

I lived in Orange County for a number of years and even came out as queer there, so this wasn’t my first rodeo with The Orange Curtain. At one point, I was unemployed and seeking work, which caused me to go back into the closet. I felt less employable dressed as a butch woman than I did a woman in heels. My suspicions were verified by countless interviews. A former colleague of mine once told me that he didn’t “believe in the gays or the transgenders.” I left the job (and the closet) for good shortly after.

This time around, my partner and I moved to Fullerton to be closer to both of our families and so my partner could go to school at Cal State Fullerton. Going into this, I knew that being trans in SoCal was going to be very different than being trans in NorCal, but I was never quite sure how different.

I was lucky enough to land an amazing job at Mental Health America of Los Angeles TAY Academy as a program manager. Being out and about in the community put me at a greater risk for harassment. At the corner nearest to my job, I am regularly catcalled, called a “he-she,” or a called a hermaphrodite. Worst of all are the stares, which I get most places in SoCal. Unfortunately, I even get stares within the queer community.

It’s because of my many oddities that it is necessary for me to be my authentic self and be counted among the many LGBTQ+ Americans. If I can make a connection with a smile and an introduction, I’ve made the world slightly easier for the trans people after me. I especially hope that my visibility can pave the way for the most vulnerable in our community: trans women of color. That is why being visible and counted is so important to me.

Beck Levin
They, Them
Fullerton, CA


Johann O.

In 1999, my family returned home to an eviction notice tacked on our front door. It was a terrifying time for my family to not know what would happen next, where we would live, how we would get by. After emigrating from the Philippines, my single mother was already working graveyard shifts to support her three children on low income, and in one moment, she and we were faced with the possibility of homelessness. My hopes and dreams were to become successful so that my family no longer had to suffer and so we could free ourselves from financial struggle. But growing up, I began to realize that there was something different about me. I was a gay Filipino boy living in Orange County with a conservative Catholic family, and I felt isolated. I was the only person to know that about myself, and I was afraid to tell anyone because I was fearful that I would be a disappointment. Truthfully, I just could not accept that part of myself. So I locked it away and thought that I could make it through without anyone having to know. And I did for quite some time. While I made my mother proud through my academic accomplishments, I continued to repress that part of me and it continued to create a deeper, darker void. As I proceeded to go above and beyond the expectations of the people around me—my friends, my teachers, my family, and especially my mother—I began to spiral into a world of depression. I was not true to myself. With all the insecurities I already had about my weight, my physical appearance, my voice, and other aspects of me, I ultimately did not like the idea that I could also be gay.

Many of my adversities have strongly influenced my career path. Now, as a young professional in the social work field experiencing day-to-day challenges with the clients I help, I have found my passion helping vulnerable and underserved communities. As a gay person of color, I am devoted to helping and empowering vulnerable individuals who experience issues with their LGBTQ+ identity, sexual health, mental health, homelessness, and substance misuse. I plan to continue a career that addresses these issues and empower minority populations, bringing forth the change they need, especially in the Asian-Pacific Islander and LGBTQ+ communities. Through my career as a social worker and my ongoing journey of learning about gay mental health, I have found my voice and I am learning what it means to be visible. I understand now that life is better when I’m being authentic to the people around me and, most importantly, being authentic to myself. Because of the adversities that I have overcome, I see myself as a strong, confident, and resilient individual. I have realized that my personal experiences can support the work I do with the populations I serve today, tomorrow, and in the future.

Johann Ortiz
He, Him
Santa Ana, CA

Being a gay man in Orange County has presented me with a number of challenges in my life. Elementary and middle school were some of my hardest times. I was bullied so badly that I had to change schools because the administration refused to do anything. I was kicked, spat on, shoved, and emotionally abused simply because I was different. Throughout my life I have learned how to become resilient and ambitious, but best of all I learned how to be compassionate. I have compassion for the boys who made me scared to go to school, I have compassion for the man that sexually assaulted me, and I have compassion for the people that told me I was going to hell because I love another man. However, I do have to acknowledge that the privilege that I was born with has made my life easier than for most of our community. And I am extremely fortunate and grateful to have a supportive and loving family that has seen me through so many battles. Thankfully, now I have found a community that I fit into and that supports me.

Theater has been my life and escape for 15 years now. In theater I no longer have to worry about hiding who I am. In fact, it is necessary to be myself because one has to bring a little bit of oneself to a character. My entire life is based upon being authentic, and I am a much better person because of it. I learned early on in life that people can be scared of your authenticity, and if they can’t or won’t handle it, they aren’t worth your time. The people who love your authenticity will always be there for you, no matter what. When you are truly authentic, you are visible, and when you are visible, you are free.

Steven Duncan Sass
Huntington Beach, California

Miliana S.

Growing up, I was taught that boys grow up to be men and girls grow up on be women. Patriarchy was heavily celebrated in my culture and the idea of erasing male privilege to become a woman was a foreign one for my family. I was 12 years old when I finally realized that although I was born male, my plight was to transition to female and that I would have to make this journey despite all the odds.

Becoming a trans woman at 17 years old in Polk County, Florida, was jarring. I was grappling with so many intersections. First was the color of my skin; I hail from West and East Indian immigrants. Second was learning to navigate the world as a woman; what that meant, how I would learn to feel about myself and the world I lived in.

At 29 I still grapple with the intersections of being a trans woman of color. I have the ability to navigate the world a lot easier because I’ve been granted passing privilege, so I create change in my community by working in social justice and community-building to lay the foundation for the generation that will follow after me.

At 12 years old I made a decision that altered the course of my life forever, one that was rooted in honesty and authenticity. The fact that I get to be a visible trans woman of color in this social and political climate is profound. I dream of a day when we are not taboo and stigma placed on trans people, immigrants, and people of color are no longer applicable.

Miliana Singh
She, Her

Nam N.

I was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S. when I was sixteen as an immigrant. Being an immigrant I was often undermined and underestimated in my ability to obtain a higher education. Overcoming the language barrier proved a challenge to adjusting to my new life in America. My high school counselor advised me not to take the SAT because she thought I would fail university classes. My aunt told me to avoid AP classes and aim for community college instead. The only person who believed in my ability was my gay uncle, the first person I came out to. He mentored me through the process of gaining my new identity as a gay American. With his support, I applied and was accepted to the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). At UCSB, I started to get involved in queer organizations and learned more about the history of the LGBT in the U.S. Throughout the four years of college, I was assimilating into American culture. It was the time of my life that I began to understand what it means to be an American.
After college, I moved to Orange County with my mom. In the quest to find my own community, I found Vietnamese Rainbow of Orange County (VROC) and became the secretary. VROC fights for the rights of Vietnamese LGBT and spreads our visibility in Orange County. In 2013, LGBT people were barred from marching in the Vietnamese annual New Year festival in Westminster, California on the assumption that being gay is not a part of Vietnamese culture. We worked hard for our rights to march and successfully turned the decision around. Ever since then, I have been marching with VROC for the Tet parade. VROC was a second family to me. All these years, VROC had nurtured me to grow up in this post-college chapter of my life. For the first time, I once again realized what it means to be a Vietnamese American. Through learning and sharing our stories, I learned that our experience is different from other Americans and also other Asian Americans. Furthermore, being an LGBT person adds more to the complexity of our American identities. In the end, I cannot be happier than to be a proud gay Vietnamese American.
Currently, I am a Ph.D. student at the University of California Irvine studying genetics. Being a scientist is not something that is associated with the LGBT. None of my VROC fellows are in the science field. A lot of time I did not feel related professionally with my VROC family. On the other hand, I am the only gay Vietnamese person in my science community. My mom even pointed out that science is a career for white people. Despite the lack of role model, I applied for grad school and became a scientist. I was very happy that I chose something which is authentically me as I am passionate about science and discoveries.
It is a stereotype that neither Vietnamese nor gay people are involved in science. In fact, I have met LGBT individuals as well as some Vietnamese fellows at my Ph.D. program. I believe there are many LGBT individuals working in the science field who are not visible. LGBT visibility in science disregards the stereotype that LGBT individuals are not contributing to science. Despite being unique, I am visible and carry my own voice for each community that I live in or work for. I am proud to be counted as a gay Vietnamese American scientist. I will continue to work for the voices and the visibility of my own people.
Nam Nguyen
He, Him
Fountain Valley, CA

Danielle S.

Since coming out as bisexual for first time as an adult, for me visibility has become personally mandatory.

That’s not how I felt as a high school student. I came out when I was fifteen only to jump immediately back into the closet when I met with unfriendly peers and a lot of outright hostility. For a long time, it was much easier to date boys and not think too hard about the rest of my identity. It was years before I examined who I was again.

When I came back to high school, this time as a teacher, I had to make a choice about who I was going to be for my students. I was asked to be the staff advisor for the Queer Student Alliance, and at the very first meeting, I had to decide whether or not I was ready to be honest with students who were trusting me within their community. I came out on that first day, and I’ll never forget how much it meant to them to see that someone they knew—an adult! a teacher!—understood part of what they were dealing with, what they were up against.

Since then, I’ve also become polyamorous. I’m married to my (male) high-school sweetheart, and I’ve been with my girlfriend, whom I love deeply, for almost a year. That brand of visibility has been harder for me, but I’m learning to be more open about that part of my life as well. My students deserve to know my most authentic self and can only benefit from understanding the rich diversity of the world in which they live.

Visibility is part of my identity now in a way I could never have anticipated as a teenager. It’s part of my teaching. I come out to all of my students in October on National Coming Out Day, I speak at LGBTQ+ educational events, I offer a safe space on my campus for queer students, and it’s part of how I conduct myself in every part of my life.

It hasn’t been easy. I’ve taken up overt LGBTQ+ advocacy work at my school and in my district, and in deeply conservative south Orange County not everyone is enthusiastic about change. There have been discouraging days where I felt that I could love my local community with all my heart, but that didn’t mean they would love me or my students back.

But for every bad day, there’s hope, rooted in the decision to be visible: a mother stopping her family to tell my girlfriend and I that we look cute together; a parent asking to borrow books from my classroom’s LGBTQ+ library so she can learn more about her transgender son; a student finding her way to my room because she heard it was safe to talk to me. These moments are what make visibility worth it, and to be counted among those visible in my community is something I value.

Danielle Serio
Aliso Viejo, CA

Peterson P.

When I was a child growing up, I would lay in bed asking for some higher power to simply let me be “normal”. I had many challenges, expectations, and pressures that came together to make my life experiences different from peers around me. I was seen as just that: different. As a result, I was bullied growing up in Orange County, for my name, my ethnicity, my race, my sexuality, my gender. For a very long time, I felt like I was torn and was told that this broken person did not belong here. I spent a majority of my adolescence surviving with the intention to run away, and when I had a chance to leave for college, I wanted to stay away for as long as I could to avoid the place that reminded me of being hurt. I did not have hope that Orange County, my home, would be a safe space that would or could nurture me and allow me grow.
When I was forced to come back to Orange County and to face my fears, I was prepared to find and to carve a space for myself while hoping to meet other people who had similar experiences like me. I returned from college equipped with lessons and experiences of self-agency, self-worth, and self-care. The more I searched, the more I found that I was not alone in my experiences: I discovered my community and my family in Viet Rainbow of Orange County. Through VROC, I was able to relearn that my backyard can be and has been a safe haven for queer people of color and that we as queer members of the Vietnamese diaspora all deserved to be fairly and equality treated, to be thriving, to be visible, and to be counted. I was given a chance to be me, a second generation Vietnamese American person who identifies as queer and gender-fluid, and more.
I work as a clinical social worker now, supporting people who survived through traumas and have challenges with their lived realities. I was asked at work “What would you like to be famous for?” during a meeting, and I shared that I wanted to be known for being “apologetically, authentically me”. In wanting to not be seen as different, I tried to mold myself to fit to the expectations given to me and expected of me. I did not want to inconvenience others and to make the people around me feel comfortable. In giving myself permission to accept the decisions, actions, and behaviors that made me quirky, queer, me, I became comfortable with and true to myself.  Different is good, special, and real; for me to celebrate my uniqueness is to accept that I am capable of being all that is me.
I learned that pain and loneliness does not always need to stay a negative feeling, but can lead to experiences that are honest and freeing. In standing up, I am vulnerable, but I can also be seen and be pinpointed as a person who is contributing to a movement that is larger than my life and beyond myself. I work towards creating change because my personal is political, professional, powerful, and precious. VROC’s slogan is “We, as a community are not complete without each other”, and this is a message that I am faithful to. Today, I am happy to be visible and to be counted as me: proudly queer and anything but “normal”.
Peterson Pham
Garden Grove, Orange County, CA

Justin M.

“I wasn’t out as a gay youth growing up in Orange County. I struggled with my identity in the context of my Evangelical upbringing at the same time I faced hostility by some peers in my public school because of my perceived orientation. There was little visibility of LGBTQ people in the community, especially adults whom I could look up to and aspire to be like. My future seemed bleak because I didn’t know what a happy, fulfilled life could look like for someone like me.

As an adult, it’s been healing to live as proud gay man in the very context I grew up but with various supportive communities that value diversity. From my work with the LGBT Center OC, to singing with Men Alive – The OC Gay Men’s Chorus to progressive political advocacy, I’ve gotten to know so many incredible people fighting for inclusion and representing the beautiful diversity that exists here in Orange County. We may not have as centralized of an LGBTQ community as some urban areas, but we are making progress and we are strong together.

Being authentic is critical to living your best possible life. It also is essential to forming strong, connected communities and paving the way for LGBTQ youth who hopefully will have it even a little better than we do now. We have the power to constantly progress and constantly make our world better. That starts with being honest and authentic.

We must be visible, and we must be counted. The more we are seen and our stories are heard, the more comfortable future generations will be in sharing their truths. Furthermore, our stories impact policies and decision-making that affect us now and for years to come. The needs of our LGBTQ community must be considered and the number of lives impacted by disparities in health and well-being must be understood.”

Justin Massey
Aliso Viejo, CA

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