Stonewall gains funds, acceptance

When Adam Ascherin moved to Chico from Red Bluff 10 years ago, the existence of the Stonewall Alliance Center was tenuous and even a little bit secretive. Now, it is a well-established and oft-used resource center.

“When I moved down here I knew nobody, and I heard a rumor that Stonewall existed,” Ascherin said. “For me, just having an idea that Stonewall existed gave me my first contact [with the gay community].”

Since then, Ascherin, the center and society in general have all come a long way. Ascherin is now the center’s executive director, and the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) community has gained new, if not total, acceptance in Chico. The center has a mailing list of around 1,000 people, and its events draw people together from all across the Northstate.

Last week, the center joined that bastion of traditionalism, the Greater Chico Chamber of Commerce, an event celebrated by a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by about 25 chamber business owners. A few days earlier, Stonewall announced it had received a $49,500 grant from the California Endowment to continue its work, providing information and referrals to people looking for health care, counseling and support within the gay community.

The center, named after the 1969 New York riots that gave birth to the gay rights movement, has been a supportive and affirming presence for gays in Chico for 13 years now. Relying on five paid staffers and a host of volunteers, the nonprofit community center has struggled to find the correct balance between activism and self-preservation in this conservative county. Kevin Freitas, director of the center’s HIV Prevention Program, said he looks to early AIDS activists as a source of inspiration yet tries to follow an approach that is not so “in your face.”

“It was really a small, marginalized group of unrecognized people that created the source of change that affects all of us,” he said. Drawing from that source allows Stonewall to work “in a quieter way. It’s not radical activism.”

The “coming out” of so many gays in the 1990s seems to have brought about increased tolerance in many quarters. But many homosexuals still face discrimination and, in some cases, violent retribution for being open about their sexual preference. What may be worse, the success HIV activists have had in influencing gay men to have safe sex has begun to decline, as some have actually gotten complacent about the virus.

The center offers free HIV testing and referrals to other services. For information, call 893-3336.