In a safer space
Eric Ruben started the Stonewall Alliance to cater to the LGBTQ 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,” said the 45-year-old Ruben.
That day, more than 10 years ago, has been stuck in Ruben’s mind ever since. The moment reminds him of his past conflict with his sexual identity as well as the realization of progress made in this community.
Much of the progress has come through the Stonewall Alliance Center, Ruben’s vision of a safe space where acceptance is the rule.
“To me, Eric and the center are like one,” longtime volunteer Doug Richardson said. “You can’t have one without the other.”
A close friend of Ruben’s, Richardson suffers from Parkinson’s disease. His connection to the center has helped him go on with life, he said.
Richardson is one example of many lives Ruben has touched, either directly or through the center.
Ruben was not always able to lend himself in that manner, however. Growing up in Southern California, he constantly questioned his identity, from his preteen years into his 20s.
“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.”
Distancing himself from others, Ruben gained weight to appear unattractive. He poured himself into the family business, developing a close relationship with his father.
Ruben’s father read an article in Playboy about Chico and suggested his son move there to find a social life. Ruben came to Chico State in 1987, and it was here that he discovered his homosexuality after two years.
Ruben decided it was time to tell his family. He called his sister first, on Oct 11, 1989.
“I need to let you know that I’m gay,” Ruben said over the phone.
His sister said she had known since he was 2.
“I got angry and my response was, ‘If you’ve known since I was 2, then why didn’t you tell me?’ “ Ruben said, laughing.
He eventually told the rest of his family on Christmas Day from a hospital bed following an appendectomy. His father didn’t take the news well—not because he was gay, Ruben said, but because he’d kept his sexuality from him.
“He didn’t trust me again in the same way,” Ruben said. “It hurt him pretty deeply.”
Upon his return to Chico, Ruben immersed himself in the gay community. He attended local Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays meetings but longed for a community center.
“He wanted a safe space where people of like-minded thinking could come together and share their stories and experiences,” said Chuck Voss, Ruben’s roommate and Stonewall Alliance Center volunteer. “A venue for communication between the gay and straight communities.”
Besides providing a permanent safe space for the community, the center also offers social services such as free HIV testing, counseling, abuse prevention and youth social groups. Also at the center is the AIDS Panel of Remembrance that provides quilting dedication services for World AIDS Day, and the Harlen Adams Memorial Library housing 2,400 volumes of LGBTQ literature (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer).
“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.”