by Hien Nguyen
photography by Vincent Matthew Franco and Hien Nguyen
Edgar Jacuinde-Torres was just planning to help replace batteries in the megaphone that would be used for the Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy march that day. Next thing he knew, he was leading a passionate group of activists advocating for their rights through the bustling streets of downtown Pomona.
The march, organized by the Pomona Pride Center, began at their headquarters and proceeded to Pomona City Hall. The Center—a brightly colored open space adorned with rainbow flags and affirmation-heart banners—is more than just a place that provides educational programs and resources. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to being an inclusive space that celebrates and empowers the LGBTQIA+ community.
The Pomona Pride Center opened its doors to the community in October 2019. With only a small budget, the organizers took advantage of a free space offered by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on East Alvarado Street. Operating out of the church’s multipurpose room, the organization provided access to different resources, educational programming, group gatherings and events for the community.
Many of the Center’s staff members started as visitors, including Edgar, who serves as the Harm Reduction & Outreach Specialist. He attended gatherings at the church during the organization’s early days. “Even before working here, I knew that the Center was there for me both physically and mentally,” he said. He and his partner went to events like “Gaymer Night” and group walks organized by the Center. He now offers workshops to the community to bring awareness about substance use disorders, and to educate people on how to apply harm reduction in a series called C.A.R.E. (Community Awareness Reduction & Education).
The Center has come a long way in a short time, as has its leadership. Founding member Frank Guzman was the first openly gay elected official in the city. He’s also served on the Pomona Unified School District.
“I feel like the expectation from the community was that I do more for the queer community, being the first gay elected official,” Frank says. “We launched an anti-bullying policy and inclusive policies, but over the course of the few years we felt like we weren’t doing enough.” That was when a group of leaders, including Frank, came together to discuss creating an inclusive space to highlight the community positively. They began building programs toward that objective.
“Our initial goal was to represent just the city of Pomona,” Frank says. “But after six months, we decided to represent the Pomona Valley region because our neighbors were calling us.” Today, their reach extends to La Verne, Claremont, Chino, Chino Hills, Diamond Bar, Montclair, Ontario, Pomona, Rancho Cucamonga, San Dimas Upland and Walnut.
Frank was on the Board of Education from 2011 to 2020, but he now works full-time at the Pomona Pride Center as the president and executive director. As a non-profit organization, the Center heavily relies on donations and grants. Most of Frank’s time is spent writing and applying for grants to help obtain funding for community services.
“My biggest achievement as executive director is landing a million-dollar grant through Elevate Youth California,” he says. “We were a $5,000 organization in year one. This year, our operating budget is about $675,000.”
Thanks to the additional funds, the Center moved out of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church into its own space at the intersection of South Thomas and West 4th Street. At the beginning, however, it wasn’t the vibrant, colorful area known and loved today. The previous owners had used it as a recording studio, with dark interiors and foam walls.
“All the walls were black when we first moved in,” Frank says. “We had to strip it down ourselves. It became a labor of love.”
Today, on the main floor, bookshelves surround a comfy couch, and vibrant artwork hangs along the walls. Visitors can borrow a laptop to work at one of the table settings, grab a snack from the food pantry, or simply relax, watch TV or socialize.
While the Center is intended as a safe space for the LGBTQIA+ community, it welcomes everyone.
“Although our regulars are queer and nonbinary youth, our doors are open to anyone who needs our space, our services and our resources,” says Program Director Cesario Mora. “We help unhoused individuals, we have COVID tests available, and if you need a snack or some food, the pantry is available for you.”
One beloved part of the Center is their gender-neutral closet. “Sometimes, I’m very surprised by what’s in the closet,” Cesario says laughing. “You can find anything from comfy hoodies to big ball gowns.” The closet aims to be a gender-affirming space that rejects the idea that certain colors and clothing styles are meant for a specific sex.
The Center also actively collaborates with community partners. “We work with 986 Pharmacy to do vaccine clinics every Wednesday, and also have our senior programming every third Sunday at the local Alibi East Bar.” Frank says. However, the rapid expansion hasn’t come without challenges. “There definitely have been some growing pains. One of the challenges is going into other cities that we represent and letting them know that we’re here, and that we’re in their communities as well.”
While most of their programs are directed toward young people, the Center strives to be welcoming of all groups that exist within their minority. “The LGBT+ community is everywhere, and has been throughout recorded history,” says board member Michael A. Ramirez. “This place recognizes and validates that.”
At a time when public oppression on the LGBTQ+ community continues to trend upward, the Pomona Pride Center serves as a place of refuge for people experiencing inclusivity issues. Their commitment to providing vital educational and recreational resources for the wellbeing of the community makes the Center a beacon of hope to many.
Pomona’s March for Queer and Trans Youth
Their hands covered in blue, pink and white paint, passionate advocates made signs and posters which later that day would be held high at the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in downtown Pomona. The event was a collaboration between Pomona Pride Center and Queer Youth Assembly in observance of International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31. Pomona is one of many cities in California that participated in the statewide celebration and protest for trans rights.
“I just want our youth to be empowered to take a stand for themselves and not be pushed around or be invisible, as some in society may wish they were,” said Frank Guzman. The Pomona Pride Center executive director hopes the protest might spark a conversation within the community that’s not limited to just one day.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho, transphobia has got to go!” marchers shouted as they made their way from the Center’s headquarters to City Hall. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Edgar Jacuinde-Torres, who found himself unexpectedly thrust into the role of march leader when he offered to change batteries in a megaphone. “I wasn’t planning to lead, but it felt right at the moment because I am deeply passionate about this cause.” Megaphone in hand, he led marchers throughout the two-hour rally.
More 500 discriminatory bills were introduced within the first few months of 2023, intended to diminish past gains by the queer community. But the LGBTQ+ community’s passion and resiliency throughout history—as evidenced by the Pomona demonstration—offer hope for a brighter future.
“We’re fighting to be heard and to be seen,” Jacuinde-Torres said. “We’re fighting to be equal, and we will keep doing it until we are seen that way.”