Sarah V.

I grew up in multiple urban environments that contained diversity, like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But it took me a long time to truly figure out my own identity. Despite being privileged in some ways and having an open-minded family, as a queer and a lesbian and a woman of color, I still had a lot of feelings of invalidation and of being an “other.”

It wasn’t until college, when I had moved to Orange County in California, that I officially came out. I was 25, and for the first time in my life I felt free. I had this overwhelming sense of comfort, but oddly enough, I had nobody wirh whom to share it. I didn’t find a strong LGBTIA+ community at the time, and I had few gay friends. Orange County was also largely conservative and seemed segregated in many ways. Being an openly queer women comes with its own challenges, but so does being a person of color. In America, we’re judged by our looks, whether it’s darker skin, not feminine enough, or not masculine or binary enough, and then treated as such. By sharing our stories, we get to change the narrative.

Now that I am working in the arts, albeit in a more traditional setting, I endeavor to speak honestly and stand up for others. I work with a group of friends in Santa Ana to provide safe spaces for the LGBTIA+ community and frequently attend local events to show my support. I think the the status quo is changing, and I’m here to be counted for it.

Sarah “Sans” Vargas
She, Her
Santa Ana, California

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

Laura K.

I am proud of being a lesbian, but I also identify with other terms including queer and pansexual. When I came out in the early 90’s during the height of the AIDS epidemic, I was immediately drawn to queer resistance movements like ACT UP. Queer fits for me because I have never been comfortable being forced into a box. Being queer frees you from limited ways of knowing and defining yourself. To know this can be scary but it is ultimately liberating. And since those boxes are social constructions, are not all beings, in essence, queer?

At the same time, my lesbian identity is something deep within me; it is my true romantic and sexual nature. But I am also attracted to people regardless of their gender identity or body parts. Until I started working with so many youth I didn’t know there was a term for this – pansexual. This fits me too.

Navigating society as a queer lesbian has always been difficult but has also been the way my life makes sense and has meaning. I have never had a choice about being anything other than authentic; being false to myself or others creates a painful cognitive dissonance that I have never been able to tolerate. To be honest, I wish I could sometimes. Wearing my heart on my sleeve and my politics on my tongue sometimes proves complicated. But with that struggle there is also the freedom that comes with being true to myself. This is an ongoing journey. Even at 55, I am still learning who I am at each stage in my life. And as I grow older, I embrace my queerness more and more. I can’t wait to see myself in my 70’s!

We must ALL be visible and counted. What is the opposite? To be defined by others who tell lies about who you are against your will. To be denied a voice and your own agency and personal power. To not be. This is the legacy of our past and the roots of deep psychological and spiritual suffering. This is an act of violence.

To thrive as human beings we must be seen and we must feel a sense of belonging. I am so grateful that there is a LGBTQ community where I and others can go to feel that we belong and where we can feel pride in who we are. And I will always fight for this community, and to end this systemic violence that causes suffering to ALL people.

Laura Kanter
Santa Ana, California

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

Dannie C.

Working as a QTPOC health care advocate has been rewarding work, as I am able to see my community obtain transitional services while creating policy change at a bigger level. Being an out, visible trans man does come with occasional transphobic remarks and severe threats against my being, but I refuse to let that rhetoric silence me. Knowing that a large percentage of California’s youth identify as queer, I want to be a visible role model that they can look up to and by whom they can feel encouraged to be their authentic selves in the face of adversity. Being visible and counted during the current federal administration is increasingly important with their attempts at erasing us. We are a resilient community. A proud community. We refuse to be erased.
Dannie Ceseña
Irvine, CA

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