How did one rainbow flag lead to an annual Pride March spanning two communities? This Boys & Girls Club shares how creating an inclusive place for all to feel welcome goes beyond Club walls.
It started with a rainbow flag. Then, when someone tore that flag down in the night, it continued with another.
“You steal one flag, we put another up,” says JR Dzubak, chief executive officer at Boys & Girls Clubs of West San Gabriel Valley & Eastside. “Now there are three rainbow flags waving in front of our building.”
Angel Silva, Club program director, spent the majority of his childhood as a member of the Club where he now works full time. Growing up, he experienced years of bullying at school before finding a much-needed safe haven at the Club, with its welcoming environment, strict anti-bullying policy and caring adults who made kids and teens feel at home.
It was the first place he felt safe enough to come out as gay, with the affirmation from his Club staff and peers helping him to accept himself. In fact, Dzubak empowered then-teen Silva to raise the first LGBTQ flag in front of the Club – a defining moment in Silva’s coming out journey.
To Silva, who once worried that the Boys & Girls Club was just another place he would get bullied – the rainbow flag is a lighthouse beacon, a symbol of safety.
“Once, someone called the front desk to complain about the flag,” he says. “They said, ‘it's not right to pressure youth into that.’ I told them the flag does not mean that we're pressuring anyone. We're waving it to make sure that youth and parents know that we accept everyone here in our Club.”
Like any community, people took notice of the rainbow flag being stolen then replaced on the Club’s front lawn. Dzubak says, “It obviously got the community riled up to support the Club.”
That support showed up in a big way when the Boys & Girls Club decided to host the first-ever Pride March in the cities of Alhambra and Monterey Park. The idea took off between Silva and his former high school teacher, Tammy Scorcia – a cities-wide celebration that would make young people feel the joy of inclusion and acceptance. “I never really saw LGBTQ awareness around our community growing up,” says Silva. “Pride Month was not something that we talked about.”
So, like the rainbow flag, the Club began to lead the way.
The first San Gabriel Valley Pride March was in 2021, with Silva taking the inaugural first steps. The now-annual march begins at the local high school, promenades by City Hall and ends at the community park across the street from the Club, culminating in a festival of food, live music and celebrating. It’s a true community effort with the school district, city and police department all partnering to bring the day to life.
By the next year, people were taking notice. Nearly 500 young people attended in 2022. The small community captured the attention of Los Angeles media and GLAAD.
“This year, it’s going up a notch,” says Dzubak, who hopes to see double the turnout at their third annual Pride March on June 3, 2023. And Dzubak has nothing but praise for the young man who is leading this commitment to inclusion for the community, Angel Silva. “Our parade and Pride event have grown and grown because Angel chairs it. He’s on the committee with the school, he’s managing relationships with the district and the police. He’s a hometown hero.
LGBTQ youth report the most important problem they face right now is a lack of acceptance from their family, according to the Human Rights Campaign. They’re also two times as likely to say they have been harassed and called names at school.
This lack of acceptance and supports has a negative impact on LGBTQ youth mental health, with LGBTQ youth suicide* becoming an urgent priority – nearly half (45%) of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide within the past year, according to the Trevor Project’s 2022 survey.
“It's tough for kids today. Incredibly tough,” says Dzubak. “When you look at the data, at the suicide rate when these young people do not feel safe, loved or supported, it’s appalling. Our Club provides all the things you’d expect – mentors, programs, experiences. But we’re really committed to being a place where every kid feels accepted, where they’re safe, where they can be themselves.”
Silva says that finding a safe haven in those challenging child and teen years as an LBGTQ young person can truly be life-changing. “I feel like if a kid feels shunned from home, from school, from everywhere, they start thinking, ‘well, what else is there’?” he says, citing reasons why LGBTQ youth run away from home, turn to alcohol or drugs or contemplate suicide.
“But when kids feel like part of a community where they are embraced and included, it’s everything. And if you’re that community, you’ll have that kid forever.”
As a Club kid turned staff member, Silva knows this to be true. He’s proud to advocate and work with kids and teens to ensure the Boys & Girls Club is a place where everyone feels welcome.
*If you or someone you know needs suicide prevention support, seek help immediately. You can call the free, confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time. You can also contact the Trevor Project, the leading national organization in providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention support for LGBTQ+ youth under the age of 25.
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