In a safer space - long version

Eric Ruben started the Stonewall Alliance to cater to the GLBTQ community

Eric Ruben was getting into his car one summer afternoon when he observed a woman dropping off a teenage boy in front of the Stonewall Alliance Center in downtown Chico. Leaning into the passenger side, the boy told his mother goodbye and then bounded into the center that Ruben helped to create.

“I’m sitting behind the wheel of my car and I teared up,” Ruben said.

That day, more than 10 years ago, has been stuck in the 45-year-old’s mind ever since. The moment reminds him of past conflict with his sexual identity as well as the realization of progress made in this community.

Moments such as this define the man who has helped others as well as himself through a vision. The Stonewall Alliance Center is Ruben’s vision; in fact, some close to him even say he is the center. An extension of the man and his struggle to find a place within himself and the local community, the center he has helped to create is a place where acceptance is the rule and not the exception.

Originally from Southern California, Ruben is one of two sons and a daughter born to “hardworking parents.” As a child, Ruben always had a desire to please because of abandonment issues felt within that stemmed from a recurring nightmare.

“Being on a dam and looking over the side with family,” said Ruben of the initial sequence. “And then looking back up and around, and everybody is gone.”

The dream contributes to a fear of rejection and abandonment that Ruben still carries with him to some extent today.

Conflict within himself while growing up resulted from stigmas linked to the gay community. He felt out of place and had difficulty coming to terms with his own sense of being.

“When you realize that you are attracted to the same sex … you don’t talk about it,” Ruben said. “It’s not wrong, but that’s the perception because of a lot of the way society treats it.”

Around the age of 11, Ruben rebelled. He was very upset and frustrated with himself and his attitude was one of disregard for school and everything in general. The behavior began to affect his studies, and one of his teachers tried helping him figure out why it was happening. At the time, sexual identity was not explored as a reason for Ruben’s discontent.

“I was never going to voice it,” said Ruben of his identity crisis at the time. “She had no training on the one subject that, if she had broached it, may have broken through a barrier and changed my life radically.”

Inability to deal with these issues at a young age led to a repression of feelings and personal identity for Ruben. He became somewhat of an introvert, pouring himself into work after school in the family business with his father. Ruben did have a small, close-knit group of “diverse friends” he ran with in high school, but intimate relationships never really materialized. At the time, he even put on weight to become unattractive.

“I still kept everybody at a distance. I started building some very serious walls around,” Ruben said. “Those stayed in place for a very long time, all through my teen years and into my 20s.”

Ruben moved from Southern California up north to attend Chico State in 1987 at the age of 26. His father had read an article in Playboy magazine about the university and thought it would be a good place to find a “social life,” Ruben said.

Chico was far enough from his home town that he was able to come to terms with issues regarding adolescence and early adulthood. A new life in a new town proved refreshing for him.

“I ended up coming into contact and meeting some gay people here in town,” Ruben said of his first social exploration into the gay community. “I began to open myself up to my own possibilities and who I was.”

It wasn’t until 1989, however, that Ruben was able to come out-at least to himself-about his sexuality. Through introspection he was able to confront the stigma weighing down his conscience.

“It’s the whole adage about the 800-pound gorilla. Getting the monkey off your back,” he said. “It was such a huge weight that got lifted.”

Ruben called his sister first. “I need to let you know that I’m gay,” Ruben said over the phone on Oct. 11, National Coming-Out Day. “She laughed and said, ‘I’ve known since you were 2.’ “

“My response was, ‘If you’ve known since I was 2 then why didn’t you tell me?’ “ he said, laughing.

Ruben decided that after graduation he was going to tell the rest of his family. Fear of rejection was what worried Ruben the most. Finishing up his college career was stressful enough; now he was going to travel back home to tell his family about his newfound sexuality.

“Basically I got down there and my appendix burst,” Ruben said, laughing about the episode. “I ended up getting in the hospital, and dealing with the surgery.”

In hindsight, Ruben feels the reason for the emergency was stress-induced. Regardless, he ended up coming out to his family while lying in a hospital bed on Christmas Day. Although there were “interesting feelings all around,” Ruben was, for the most part, accepted by his family. He often uses the story of the Christmas gift he gave to his family as an anecdote to break the ice speaking at panel forums about issues regarding the LGBTQ community.

There was disconnection between Ruben and his father after that day, however. Not because Ruben announced he was gay, but because he and his father had become extremely close during the years they worked together in the family business.

“He didn’t trust me again in the same way,” Ruben said. “It hurt him pretty deeply.”

When Ruben returned to Chico, he became “immersed” in the gay community. Attending Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays meetings, Ruben liked this alternative to the gay bar scene, but felt there was something missing.

“Up through the ‘60s, ‘70s, and well through the ‘80s, a lot of gay communities came together in the bars. We had a gay bar here in Chico.” Ruben said. “The alternative to that was PFLAG.”

According to its Web site, PFLAG is a nonprofit organization with more than 200,000 members nationwide. PFLAG prides itself on being a “grassroots network” dedicated to the health and well-being of those in the LBGTQ community through support networks and community service projects.

Ruben felt PFLAG was lacking a community center, though. He came up with the idea for an alternative to the bar scene where members of the LGBTQ community could meet and socialize in a comfortable environment.

“I proposed in a PFLAG meeting the idea of having a meeting to get people in the community and talk about the idea of a community center,” Ruben said

PFLAG was just a stepping stone for the idea Ruben had envisioned for the center he wanted to develop in Chico. He wanted a place for members of the LGBTQ community to gather and develop friendships, a “safe space.”

A meeting was held in 1990 at Ruben’s house, where a small group of people came together and formulated the idea. Since then, the Stonewall Alliance Center has allowed everyone connected with it to take an active part in the LGBTQ community in Northern California and beyond.

Chuck Voss, Ruben’s close friend and roommate, helped out at the center with maintenance at first, and eventually became a board member.

“He wanted a safe space for people of like-minded thinking to come together and share their stories and experiences,” Voss said of Ruben, “a venue for communication between the gay and straight communities.”

Voss was exited with the concept of the center, tiring of the bar scene and unsavory elements that gathered there.

“Quite honestly, I was one of the guys that was down there usually drunk on a Saturday night,” he said. “It wasn’t particularly a safe place. There were drugs- I didn’t do drugs, but it was there.”

The center gave Voss and others the opportunity to engage in clean social activities such as pot-luck dinners and barbecues. That was the sort of safe activity that Ruben envisioned for the LGBTQ community

“I worked very hard for quite a number of years as a volunteer trying to get the center going,” Ruben said. “Community support has always been there; it’s pretty phenomenal.”

That’s why Ruben was so emotional that day watching the teenager entering the Stonewall Alliance Center. The center was something Ruben never had at that age and to see his vision and how it affected the community moved him.

Today, with almost two decades in existence, the center has evolved into more than just a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community to feel welcome. It offers free HIV testing, abuse prevention programs, and family support networks. These services are open to all who are interested, regardless of sexual orientation.

“I’ve run into more people, even Chico State professors, that have relocated to Chico because the center existed,” said center volunteer Doug Richardson. “It’s been a great source of inspiration.”

The creation of the Stonewall Alliance Center itself has a historical connection with the nearby university. Harlen Adams Memorial Library, located inside the center, houses more than 2,400 gay and lesbian fiction and non-fiction titles.

The late Adams, dean and professor emeritus at Chico State, had a son named Martin who came out in the ‘60s. Adams made it his goal to understand his son’s lifestyle and collected more than 400 books related to homosexuality. The books are currently shared between the university and the center.

Adams’ acceptance of his son was an inspiration to Ruben and Chico’s LGBTQ community during the Stonewall Alliance’s formative years.

“The center exists to help people connect and to help people find other people,” Ruben said. “We are a place where you can find community.”

Ruben’s free time was completely devoted to the center for the first 10 years of its existence. Sometime around 2001 he decided to take a break so he went on hiatus, describing it as a “complete withdrawal” from the center. During that time he was sort of a “recluse,” hanging out with friends and working on other projects.

Richardson has Parkinson’s disease. He’s known Ruben since the center’s inception and became involved with it at the first location in a warehouse on Seventh Street. He remains involved to this day at the center’s current location on the fourth floor of the Waterland-Breslauer building downtown. His friendship with Ruben and connection to the center has allowed him to stay occupied while coping with the disease.

“When you have a chronic disease, it helps to get involved with something,” Richardson said.

In 2006, Ruben returned to the center and the board of directors that govern it. Since then, he’s been hard at work, volunteering there in his free time.

As far as Richardson is concerned though, Ruben is the center.

“To me, Eric and the center are like one,” Richardson said. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Words of praise like that for Ruben and the Stonewall Alliance come from just about all who know him well enough to call him a friend. But for Ruben, it’s always been about the center and the community it serves.

“Yes, I’ve made a lot of things happen, but it still takes the community," Ruben said. "The best leaders are invisible; the next best get all the accolades."