Portrait of the gay activist as a young man
Adam Ascherin, the director of the Stonewall Alliance Center, is out, proud and happy to be alive
Adam Ascherin and I stood across the street from the Downtown Park Plaza one cool afternoon in November. We shielded our eyes from the low autumn sun and strained to see a window on the fourth floor of the Waterland-Breslauer building, the big pink structure on the corner of Fourth and Broadway. “If you look carefully,” he said, “you can see it.”
What Ascherin was pointing out was the biggest gay-pride flag in Chico hanging in the window of the offices where he works. The rainbow-colored flag represents years of hard work by Ascherin and is an important symbol to the gay community.
Ascherin, a slender, attractive man in his late 20s, goes to school part time, hoping finally to finish his business administration degree, and has a job. He is passionate about life, friends and helping the community. He has a lot to say about what the flag represents and what his life is like being gay in Chico.
It’s impossible to talk about Adam Ascherin without talking about the Stonewall Alliance, the only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—LGBT for short—community center north of Sacramento. Ascherin has been involved with the center off and on for the past 10 years and is currently its executive director.
A few minutes later, sitting at a large table in the Stonewall library, surrounded by books and computers, he talked about his life in Chico.
LGBT is a bit of a mouthful, and Ascherin said the easiest way to refer to the group he represents was as “the community.” Not everyone feels safe or confident enough to be openly gay in Butte County, he said. But Ascherin, who moved to Chico from Red Bluff about 10 years ago, said he’d never had a problem here and was happy to share his experiences of being, well, himself.
Because of his position in the gay community, Ascherin enjoys a level of comfort not available to many LGBT people in Chico and said he felt honored to have that opportunity. His position at Stonewall empowers him to demonstrate that it is possible to live as an openly gay man and suffer no social castigation. Chico is a very tolerant community and, aside from some of the religious propaganda that is occasionally mailed to the center (sans return address), the LGBT community suffers little, he said.
Ascherin has worn a pride symbol on his book bag for about two years. He was concerned that he might experience hostility when he first put it on, he said, but that didn’t happen. In fact, he’s even met people because of it.
I asked him if he’d wear that pride symbol in Oroville. He laughed and said, “Uh, no. Just in the four-block area from the [Stonewall] center to the university and back.” But, he went on, “there is a very large [gay] community in Oroville.”
In that regard Oroville is much like Red Bluff, the town where Ascherin grew up and was extremely careful to hide his sexual orientation. “Going through high school, there were definite anti-gay overtones, jocks vs. cowboys vs. skaters kind of thing,” he said. One boy was quite flamboyant, he said, and as a result was ridiculed for years, since kids tended to go from kindergarten through high school with the same group of people.
“Fortunately,” Ascherin said, laughing, “I was smart enough to realize to keep my mouth shut, that high school would end one day.”
Ascherin had a clue about his sexuality coming out of puberty, and looking back at his life, of course, he sees the signs. “I was attracted to my fourth-grade teacher, and he was a man, very attractive.” But, he said, information concerning homosexuality was non-existent then.
He was just fumbling along, he said, trying to figure out his sexuality, all the while lacking information and role models.
Ascherin smiles and laughs a lot and did so while telling the story about grasping his sexual orientation. “Two weeks before graduating high school, [the fellow who was to become] my first boyfriend asked me if I was ‘family.’ I had no clue, so I said, ‘Yes.’ Well, I had a little bit of a clue, but you know. … Then I found out what it meant, and I said, ‘Oh, you mean gay.’
“Fortunately,” Ascherin went on, “he asked me, and that is when I first verbalized it even to myself.”
At that point he realized, “Yes, this is who I am, and so I am going to tell my family because I don’t want to live a lie.” He knew that his life would be more fulfilling if he could just be himself. And he was right.
Ascherin was valedictorian of his graduating class. “It was a proud moment to be gay and to give the valediction at Red Bluff,” he said. But he didn’t use the occasion to come out.
“It would have been great to say, ‘I’m so glad you are accepting to homosexuals,'” he said, laughing. “But what are you going to do? Twenty-twenty hindsight.”
Through his first boyfriend Ascherin was introduced to other gay people and realized that he wasn’t “the only one,” a common feeling among gay youth. Ascherin was also introduced to the Stonewall Alliance Center when he and his boyfriend made a trip to Chico.
When Ascherin moved to Chico soon after graduation, he knew that Stonewall was the place to go to meet people. He didn’t have to keep his mouth shut here. In fact, he was one of four young homosexuals who were featured in a 1994 CN&R cover story, “Young, Gifted and Gay.”
When he saw his picture on the paper’s cover, he said to himself, “Oh well, there’s no going back now.” If anyone at work had any questions about his sexuality, the story said it all. He didn’t have to worry about coming out: It was all right there on the cover.
In fact, he said, a lot of benefit came out of that story. Not only did he not get any negative flak, Stonewall got 68 calls that week and was able to help people realize that they weren’t alone in their sexual identity.
The main room in Stonewall’s offices is spacious and has a cozy sitting area with a couch and TV in one corner and a working space in another. Magazines and newspapers are neatly stacked around the room, there is a basket of complimentary condoms, and the pride flag hangs in the window.
The offices’ other large room houses an impressive resource library containing the largest collection of LGBT books north of Sacramento, with over 3,000 titles. The library also serves as a resource for students from CSU who work on such issues as same-sex marriage, sexuality and HIV/AIDS.
Considered the “pride and joy” of the center, the library contains works of fiction and nonfiction. Subject headings include autobiography, biography, coming out, fiction for gay men, fiction for lesbians, health, opposing views, philosophy, poetry, reference, self-help, social studies and youth.
Ascherin’s own office, tucked away behind the main room, is a long narrow room, more of a large closet, really. Here he coordinates the monthly newsletter, Center Stone, which is distributed to more than 900 households in Butte County and across the nation. The newsletter is the longest-running program of the center, in its 12th year, and is mailed in a nondescript format to protect those who wish to remain private about their sexuality or reading interests.
The center currently hosts discussion groups for women, men and young adults and offers LGBT AA meetings. Health outreach consists of free, anonymous HIV testing that is hosted at the Stonewall space and is done every Monday evening by the county Department of Public Health. This service is available to anyone, whatever his or her sexual orientation.
The Internet has become an increasingly important way to reach individuals in the community. The center tackles online health outreach by going into Chico chat rooms and answering questions that people might have and promoting safer sex practices.
The center depends heavily on the help of volunteers and on funding from the community. Grant money dried up after the events surrounding Sept. 11, 2001, and the cash-strapped center had to work hard to make up a shortfall. Ascherin has managed to do that by scaling back on some programs and making operations more efficient. The health outreach program was considered too important to lose, so it continues.
The center is usually the first contact that people new to Chico have with the LGBT community. Here, for example, they can learn which businesses are supportive of the LGBT community, including doctors, mental-health professionals, real estate agents and apartment complexes.
Life in a relatively rural area creates certain challenges for gay people, beginning with a sense of isolation. “One of our biggest challenges,” Ascherin said of Stonewall, “is getting the word out that there are other LGBT individuals living in Butte County.”
Ascherin says that he wants to show people that there are options available. He sees hope in the younger generation because, he believes, younger people, straight and gay, tend to be more open minded and less set in their ways.
Sorting out one’s sexuality is tough for non-heterosexuals, especially in rural areas like Butte County, where role models are few and far between. Still, Ascherin believes that it is “getting a little bit easier for late-teens and young adults to find an identity. I think the media have helped with shows like Will and Grace and Queer Eye.”
Bisexuality has become a fad of sorts among many young celebrities, Ascherin said. It is trendy to copy the actions of those who have come out, and young people feel freer to experiment with their identities and sexuality. Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, kd lang and Cynthia Nixon, among others, have brought lesbianism into the mainstream consciousness and helped pave the way for tolerance.
While life is getting easier, LGBT teens still have a much higher risk of suicide, substance abuse and being victims of harassment, according to a study by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).
“In Chico the biggest thing the community faces is social isolation. Everyone thinks that they are alone or that they are the only one.” If more people were out about their sexuality, Ascherin said, it would be only positive for others in the LGBT community and the community at large. “If we would all just be comfortable enough to step up and say we’re here, that would build such a great momentum of strength in the community. That would support others and help them feel comfortable.”
A sense of isolation can lead to despair and suicide. That’s why high-profile people who are out in the community are vital, Ascherin said. For people who might be exploring or questioning their identities, seeing functioning LGBT people in the society can provide comfort by showing that someone has already gone through the process.
Ascherin said it is important to realize that people in the gay community are “like everyone else: We have to take the trash out, pay the bills, get an education. We just happen to be attracted to people of the same gender.”
Another big problem in Chico is the lack of a gathering place. There have been various gay bars in the area over the years, but the last one, in the Almond Orchard Shopping Center, closed in 2000. Chico needs a place for people to interact casually, Ascherin said, and he’s sure the community could support a watering hole of sorts, be it bar, book store or coffee shop.
Though Stonewall provides a space for socializing, it is geared mainly toward social services.
Scott Gruendl agrees that a watering hole or gathering spot of some sort is needed. Mr. Lucky, a downtown music club, is considered tolerant, he said, but to find a truly gay club people have to hit the big cities—Sacramento or San Francisco.
As a member of the Chico City Council and, as of this week, its mayor, Gruendl, who has lived here for 20 years, is the most prominent out gay person in town. As a councilmember, he has been much involved with the Stonewall Alliance. He has helped with its long-range planning in the past and is currently president of a community organization that helps to fund the Stonewall Youth Program.
“Adam is doing a very good job,” he said. “Stonewall has had many changes in leadership over the years, and Adam seems to have added stability to the organization.”
Gruendl first knew he was different when he was a pre-teen and came to accept his sexuality when he was 14. “There may have been resources availale [at the time],” he said, “but I did not know how to access them.”
Gruendl said he had a difficult time first accepting who he was and then letting others know. He credits his commitment to honesty and his faith in God with carrying him through the experience. He was always able to look to his parents and other important adults in his life for direction, he said.
In college he came out to his friends and was openly accepted. He came out to his family 10 years ago, when his partner died of AIDS. He waited to tell them, he said, because he “was worried about letting my parents down and feared rejection, so I held back on letting people know for several years, and it began to eat me up because I believe in honesty.”
This was not easy for Gruendl. “You have to understand that I was raised in a very religious family, and my fear of rejection caused me to suppress any outward expression of my true self,” he said. In other words, “I lived a double life, a straight one and a gay one.
“Chico isn’t exactly gay friendly,” Gruendl said, adding that he doesn’t hide his sexuality and is treated well. He’s never fit what he calls the “typical perception” of a gay man. “Even to this day, many people are surprised that I am gay,” he said, “because people have this misconception that gay men must be feminine.”
Gruendl, who is HIV positive, said that the biggest challenge in Butte County is a lack of adequate health services, especially for those living with AIDS. “People with little money often must travel out of Chico and may not receive timely services,” he said.
Historically, gay people have flocked to big cities for safety and a sense of community. There they’ve not only found greater tolerance, but also been able to create their own self-contained communities. Adam Ascherin cocked his eyebrow while recalling the first time he saw the Castro District in San Francisco.
“It was very awe inspiring, overwhelming and very nice to see,” he said. But it was not for him. The city is good to visit for about a week, he explained, but “I’m a small-town person at heart.”
Ascherin spends his personal time working around his house and dabbling in the garden. He lives in a 900-square-foot, Sears-Roebuck cottage that he’s decorated with colorful wall treatments and various, interesting knickknacks. Inside, near the front door, sit two little ceramic rottweiler figurines that are dressed in black-leather vests and black-leather biker’s caps accessorized with studded leather collars. “I got them at Wal-Mart of all places,” he said with a laugh.
Ascherin is strongly connected to Chico. His natural mother and father have passed on, and he has no ties to the rest of his “blood” family. But he has a strong surrogate family, an older male couple whom he met when he moved to Chico. He considers these men to be his parents, and they consider him to be their son. They all lived together in the house where Ascherin currently lives for many years. Recently, though, the couple moved to a larger house in order to care for an ailing relative.
Ascherin has been living alone (actually with his two cats that seem to be able to levitate to the highest spot in the room without moving a whisker) since August of this year, and he says he is really enjoying it. “I’m finding my own space,” he said.
He says he eventually wants to share his life with someone special, though he’s not actively searching for a partner right now. “It is hard to meet people in Chico,” he said, “without a place to socialize.” He predicted that he’ll probably have to find a partner in one of the big cities and lure him to Chico.
Ascherin, who considers himself spiritual but not religious, was raised in a Mormon household and left the church while still a young teenager. “The Mormon Church,” he noted, “does not accept practicing homosexuals,” so he no longer considers himself Mormon.
After he left the church he explored different religions and even spent a year in Israel exploring Judaism’s response to homosexuality. “They treat it as a non-issue, really,” he said. Ascherin celebrates Hanukkah and Yom Kippur on occasion, but he really doesn’t practice much of the other ceremonial aspects of Judaism and he’s not planning on converting anytime soon.
Ascherin also has a passion for the outdoors. He especially likes camping on the coast. He’s looking forward to hiking the Sutter Buttes with a friend who has obtained permission to do so. For his 25th birthday he hiked Half Dome with some friends, and he plans to do it again for his upcoming 30th birthday.
Ascherin has definite short-term plans. He’s going to finish up his bachelor’s degree next semester and then go on to earn his MBA. He’ll continue his work at Stonewall, organizing the upcoming 15th-anniversary celebration, and working to get it to a more financially stable state.
What the distant future holds for Ascherin is uncertain, but he’s bound to be a success. The CN&R story got it right, back in 1994: He truly is young, gifted and gay.