Latin Pride comes out for Reno’s annual Gay Pride Festival
“Huhlooow!” cries Nedy Tollerstad, a 50ish woman of diminutive stature as she presides over a Latin Gay Pride meeting of about 40 Hispanic men preparing for the 8th Annual Reno Gay Pride Festival.
“I said Huh-looooooowww!” Tollerstad repeats loudly.
Tollerstad is the founder of Latin Gay Pride, and she works for Nevada Hispanic Services. She has brown hair with red highlights and a kind, motherly face. She wears a lime-green top with brown stripes and off-white slacks. A jade bracelet adorns one wrist, and her other hand gestures wildly as she makes a point.
“What I am here to talk to you about today is having sex in the parks,” she intones, first in Spanish and then in English.
“The Reno Police Department is cracking down on men that have sex in public places,” she adds. “You have to remember that having sex in public, whether it is in the park, restrooms, or in the bushes, is a crime—and you will be prosecuted. Huhloow!”
Tollerstad is referring to recent sting operations that have resulted in more than a dozen arrests in Reno’s City parks where men have been arrested for what is politely called “lewd conduct.” What it really means is that men—many of whom don’t identify themselves as gay—use public restrooms at truck stops and parks to hook up for sex. Sometimes, they don’t leave the premises or rent a room, preferring to have sex there or maybe venture into the cover of low brush to have sex outdoors—much to the consternation of the folks living in the area who, for some reason, don’t think having oral sex in the shrubs constitutes an appropriate use of public space.
As a result, those participating in these acts have been arrested and face up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine. That’s pretty expensive for a blow job in the park.
Tollerstad wants the members of the group to know about this news because they mostly don’t read newspapers or listen to English-speaking television (the only news outlets that covered the story). She wants them to know they are at risk if they engage in such behavior, and while it should be emphasized that none of the group have been accused of participating in such acts and none were picked up in the sting operation, Tollerstad feels an obligation to inform “her boys” of everything and anything that might put them at risk.
“You boys have to know. You have to know—not because you are doing this, but because someone is. You know, I always say—it is better to be prepared than to be ignorant. Huhlooow!” Tollerstad’s jade bracelet lightly jingles as she waves her arm for emphasis.
Tollerstad likes the word “hello.” She uses it to punctuate her sentences. She uses it mainly like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. As in, “I tell the boys that even though I am a straight woman that has been happily married for 23 years, we have something in common—we both like men! Huhloooow!”
This meeting of Latin Gay Pride organizers consists of mainly young men under the age of 25. They’ve met every Thursday at Confetti’s Nightclub, 50 E. Grove St., for more than three years.
“We like Confetti’s even though it is a straight nightclub,” says Tollerstad.
She explains, “I want a place where the boys are safe. Where nobody points at them. Where no one makes fun or humiliates them. I want a place—we all did—where the guys could be respected, and the owners and staff here make sure they are respected.”
Confetti’s is one of Reno’s largest clubs. Its cavernous interior is mostly black with a large dance floor, stage and VIP sections. They also have several bars and a restaurant. Confetti’s caters primarily to a Latin crowd—and on weekends, the place is packed with men and women both gay and straight, and there is rarely any problem.
“When we come to these meetings,” continues Tollerstad, “we talk about everything, and I always bring in people from the community to talk about issues like immigration, education and politics.”
One recent meeting featured information on registering to vote as well as an appearance by Myra Sheehan, president of the Nevada Trial Lawyer’s Association, candidate for Family Court Judge in Reno and a long-time advocate for legal rights for Hispanics in Northern Nevada.
Ben Felix, an activist in the Latino Gay Community and executive director of A Rainbow Place, Northern Nevada’s Gay and Lesbian Center discussed the sting operation further with the predominantly male audience.
“The problem with a sting operation like this is that people think gays participate in it or that it is normal for the community when nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. Felix is of Latin heritage, thin with dark skin and jet-black hair tied back neatly in a ponytail. He is well-known in the community. Felix works frequently with traditionally high-risk youth groups and occasionally appears in community fundraisers in drag as “Cha Cha.” A former dancer with Reno’s holy grail of production shows, Hello Hollywood, Hello, Felix is renowned for being able to dance beautifully while wearing 7-inch platform heels. Felix’s bond with the men in the room is palpable.
“These men know this is inappropriate behavior—and the bad part is that too many non-gays want to perpetuate that homosexual stereotype that we are all perverts and wackos, but it isn’t true,” he said. “But, we are here to let our guys know what is going on. We believe an informed community is a strong community—and no matter what the issue, we want to get it out in the open, so it is not some secret, so that our members are never at risk.”
The AIDS epidemic hasn’t gone away
“At risk” is a good term to use in the gay community—even 20 years after the peak of the AIDS and HIV epidemic. Despite new drug treatments and nearly two generations of preventative measures, HIV continues to affect millions.
Consider Nevada’s statistics:
In Nevada, the cumulative number of reported AIDS cases from the beginning of the epidemic in 1981 through 1996 is 3,068.
In Washoe County, the cumulative number of newly reported cases of HIV (since 1981) is 1,138 and newly reported cases of AIDS is 778.
Presently, more than 600 people are receiving treatment at Northern Nevada Hope House (the primary medical care facility for HIV/AIDS in the Reno area).
There are numerous additional individuals who are receiving treatment from private care, the VA Hospital or non-reporting agencies—so the total number of people living with HIV/AIDS is estimated to be between 600 and 1,000.
In Africa, an entire generation has died from the disease, leaving behind a legacy of children raised by their grandparents or no one at all. Africa seems a long way away. But, not to Tollerstad and Felix, who both work as AIDS outreach officers in Washoe County.
Tollerstad and Felix are among the 10 or so HIV-team members responsible for HIV/AIDS prevention in the community. They are tasked with specifically reaching Hispanic men and women, a demographic that is among the most at risk for contracting HIV. While their job is to educate and inform Hispanics, their passion is to become involved in the lives of the Latinos in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community—and to stop HIV one person at a time.
“I am from Los Angeles,” explains Tollerstad. “Over 13 years ago, I had two childhood friends die of AIDS. When we were kids, we would play—I would be the king, and they would be the queens.” She laughs at the memory. “When they died, I just decided I had to get involved.”
That involvement manifested itself in work as a volunteer in Nevada beginning in 1991. Not long thereafter, Tollerstad, a trained social worker, became an employee of the Nevada AIDS Foundation, and for eight years she worked with that organization, which now runs residence programs in Northern Nevada. Tollerstad then joined the Northern Nevada Outreach Team and, three years ago, was invited to join Nevada Hispanic Services to deal with the unique challenges of preventing HIV/AIDS among Nevada’s fast-growing Hispanic population.
“I have two groups I deal with,” explains Tollerstad. “The first is my Secondary AIDS Prevention group that meets weekly. The other group is Latin Gay Pride, which I helped found in 2001.”
Tollerstad’s office at Nevada Hispanic Services looks like most other quasi-governmental offices filled with modular cubes and Formica-covered desks and counter space. The walls are adorned with the many awards the organization has received since being formed in 1976. In addition to the awards are public notices of meetings—how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (one poster proclaims, “Wear Your Rubbers!") and notices on how to receive Spanish-speaking legal assistance on issues such as immigration.
“The men came to me, and I realized that to reach them and to gain their trust, I had to get involved with their lives. They had no place to meet or gather other than bars, and some were even too young to get into a bar, so what were they supposed to do?” she asks as she gestures with her hands sitting in her Reno office. “So we started weekly meetings three and a half years ago—and we talked about everything. From there, things just took off.”
Latin Pride at Reno Gay Pride
Today, Latin Gay Pride has a half dozen sponsors and is an integral part of the 8th Annual Reno Gay Pride Festivities scheduled for Aug. 20-22 in Reno. The parade begins at 10 a.m. Aug. 21. Latin Pride will sponsor a float (they were an award winner in 2003) and will entertain for several hours on the Fourth Street Stage near the event’s food court. Additionally, next to the stage, Latin Pride will have a dance tent featuring local DJs and dance lessons.
Tollerstad elaborates, “We wanted to make sure that there was a friendly, stress-free place so people could be under the shade with great music. Our guys will encourage people to come in and take lessons—or if they don’t want lessons, they can just come in and dance and have fun. Huhloooow!”
Latin Gay Pride is also planning Sunday festivities at Confetti’s and will perform in local shows Saturday night at The Quest, 210 W. Commercial Row, one of the area’s local gay bars.
But organizers of this Reno Gay Pride Festival are turning the event into one of Reno’s premier summer attractions. The event, which normally attracts between 5,000 and 7,000 participants, is expecting to draw attendance from cities with large gay populations, like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In fact, for the first time, area casinos are working together to attract gay tourists. Four casinos—Circus Circus, The Eldorado, Harrah’s and Silver Legacy—are offering special packages to tourists on both their Web sites and the event’s Web site, www.renogaypride.com. Entertainment directors from the casinos also met with Pride organizers months ago and asked what entertainers might appeal to gays and lesbians, including both locals and tourists.
The first choice among Pride organizers was Melissa Etheridge, the popular rock ‘n’ roll performer, who gained notoriety for coming out more than 10 years ago and even further notoriety for getting David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame) to father her two children. To everyone’s surprise, Etheridge, who was touring in Europe, agreed to appear and will perform at the City Center Arena across from the Silver Legacy Aug. 20-21.
It’s no surprise the casinos are interested in attracting the gay tourist dollar—according to MGM-Mirage, gays will spend an estimate $786 billion on travel this year, so working with Pride makes bottom-line sense in a market that faces fierce competition from outside. The Virginia Street casinos are joined by support from other area casinos such as the Golden Phoenix (which will host the Reno Gay Pride Pageant), the Sands Hotel and Casino (which hosted Nevada Gay Rodeo earlier this year) and the Reno Hilton (which hosted an event called Coronation, which brought in hundreds of gay tourists in June of this year).
For organizers, led by Pride president Kaye Crawford, who founded the event eight years ago, the times they are a-changin'. Just a few years ago, only the Cal-Neva was willing to host a major event. When other casinos realized Gay Pride was an event that attracted good crowds with lots of disposable income, it was a no-brainer, and they signed on.
For the first time, Pride organizers will have a downtown Street Fair comparable to Cinco de Mayo or the Italian American Festival, around which the event will revolve. The official theme is “Vote Your Pride” to reflect an election year hallmarked by controversial ballot measures on gay marriage that will appear on ballots in nearly a dozen states. Anchoring one end of Reno Pride is the Harrah’s Stage where DJ Gerard G. will play throughout the day. Local politicians are expected to make appearances. Other entertainment will include the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and Chrisanne Eastwood, a lesbian comic and featured actress in the HBO series Arliss.
The other end of the festival is at Circus Circus and is anchored by the Fourth Street Stage (between Silver Legacy and Circus Circus), which will feature local acts, bands, the Asha Belly Dancers, Diva Latinas (Latin drag performers), performers from the Imperial Court (a non-profit group of drag queens and other entertainers who raised nearly $40,000 last year for community groups) and entertainers from other area hotels.
The 8th Annual Reno Gay Pride celebration’s street party will run until 6 p.m. Grand Marshals of the Gay Pride Parade are gay partners Andy Horstmanshoff and Kevin Cooper, who have been together 14 years and who, 6 months ago, joined 2,900 others to be legally married in San Francisco. Horstmanshoff and Cooper are a living symbol of gay struggle in an increasingly hostile political climate.
On Aug. 22, following the Pride Festival, there will be a spiritual service conducted by Metropolitan Community Church of the Sierras to bring the festivities to a close.
Reno Gay Pride is about a lot of things. The GLBT community uses the rainbow as its universal symbol because there is so much variety within the community. Some participants celebrate their freedom to lead their lives unoppressed and out of the closet. Others celebrate the early days of Stonewall (the site of the first Pride event in New York City) where gays and lesbians rioted in order to express their disgust with discriminatory policies and treatment by city officials. Others come to express their support of loved ones. Still others come for the great entertainment, food and festive mood and atmosphere.
Tollerstad, who has spent the past 13 years helping gays, articulates her reasons best when she says, “I want to help eradicate the stigma associated with being gay and especially with being HIV [positive]. I want these men and women to not cringe at the thought of being out. I want them not to worry if they are effeminate or butch or whatever. I want them to love themselves enough and to be proud enough to live life as God made them—whatever that may be.”
Tollerstad’s eyes fill with tears. She has buried friends and buried clients. She has bridged the gap of language, culture and religion, and there is no mistaking her unflappable belief in her work.
“I look at these men and women, and I am so humbled at their trust in me—how much they respect me—and how much they are working to make a difference. That to me is what Pride is all about. Huhloooow!"