For Gilroy Pride, the 2017 Christmas Parade was a coming-out party of sorts. The organization, which started only six months ago and has 178 members on its Facebook page, was out, loud and proud in a city that had never had a Pride group.
The group’s members weren’t sure what the reaction would be to their rainbow clad floats and marchers.
“They totally loved us,” said Gilroy Pride’s de-facto spokesperson Freda Kogan, an outspoken former New Yorker, “People were saying that we were so brave and that Gilroy needed a group like us.”
Little else has been as smooth. Challenges include a row with the with the Gilroy Unified School District, an argument with the mayor over homelessness, social media hate, law enforcement and a high school bully who drove a truck onto a sidewalk chasing an out-of-the-closet teenager on her bike.
They carry on.
In a lot of ways, Rachel, Freda Kogan’s 17-year-old daughter, is a typical teenager. She isn’t, but that has little to do with her sexual orientation. She’s a 4.7 GPA senior at Christopher High School student with a punky half-shaved head haircut. She’s also the president of the Christopher High, Gay-Straight Alliance and she won’t hesitate to stand up for what she thinks is right. She does it despite a long history of being bullied, culminating in being chased onto a sidewalk by a truck driving classmate.
“We roasted the school board,” Rachel said speaking of a contentious school board meeting where she, Freda and other allies excoriated the Gilroy Unified School District for not adequtely defending LGBTQ students from bullying. “We each had two minutes to talk and we each went up there and went after them.”
It wasn’t the first time that members of Gilroy Pride engaged in verbal spats with members of the community. At a Coffee With the Mayor in September, the group intended to introduce Gilroy Pride to the city but instead got into a fight over the treatment of the homeless population of Gilroy.
“All we were saying is that just because someone doesn’t have a home that doesn’t mean they switch species,” Freda said of their interaction with Gilroyans during the Coffee With the Mayor meeting. “This lady behind us was getting into it with Rachel and I told her, ‘don’t get in arguments with ignorant people.’ So this lady just hauls off and whacks me in the back of the head.”
A similar argument online, albeit non-physical, that ballooned into a series of altercations on the Gilroy Neighborhood Watch page on Facebook became a rallying point for the birth of Gilroy Pride, a group led by Freda Kogan, her daughter Rachel Kogan, Tanya Stumpf and Jean Batt, a Gilroyan who goes by Donny Mirassou when in drag.
“Randomly someone on the Gilroy Neighborhood Watch asked if Gilroy was ready for pride and some of the responses were just disgusting,” Stumpf, an LGBTQ ally and married mother of two said of the group’s founding. “All I saw was Freda’s name over and over, saying ‘you’re wrong’, that ‘you don’t understand.’ In the end, she said, ‘let’s start a group.’”
Rachel is a national honor student, a competitive choir member, soon-to-be pre-med student who is still weighing which of 11 potential universities to choose. She, like Freda, is unafraid to speak up for what she believes, even when she must remind her mom that she can speak for herself. Like mother like daughter, they’ll let you know exactly what they think.
Gilroy Pride’s formation came shortly after the reformation of a Gay-Straight Alliance at Christopher High which was supported by LGBTQ San Francisco, South County District Attorney Johnny Gogo and the Gilroy Police Department. The group’s reformation became necessary as LGBTQ students at Christopher High became increasingly marginalized.
“When I was a freshman at Christopher High the atmosphere was so accepting,” Rachel said. I didn’t come out myself; I was outed. I was so scared, but it was such an accepting community when I was a freshman. Over the years I saw it decline into a toxic and hateful atmosphere. I saw people that I knew put themselves back into the closet because they became more and more afraid of what people thought of them.”
The Christopher High Gay-Straight Alliance folded after Rachel’s freshman year due to lack of participation. Without the unifying presence of the club, many LGBTQ students became increasingly isolated.
“It got worse to a point where I was the victim of three separate LGBTQ hate crimes and when that got out the toxicity at school only got worse,” Rachel said. “I said to myself that I had to do something before I left school before it got any worse.”
Rachel did not have a dramatic, made for television, coming out story. Rachel’s ‘mom, I think I like girls,’ announcement was met with, ‘I know.’ Rachel’s parents knew she was gay when she was 3-years-old, turning her revelation into a confirmation. Progress has slowed in recent years however and the path out of the closet for many LGBTQ teens has become fraught with difficulties.
“People think that when teens come out as LGBTQ that being gay is the sole part of their being,” Rachel said. “I encountered a lot of that when I came out. Me being gay was the only thing that people wanted to talk about. I like math, I like science and I’m in the choir. There’s so much more to my personality than being gay.”
Part of the Christopher High Gay-Straight Alliance is to break the stigma that sexuality defines the person. To help diversify the conversation, the Christopher High Gay-Straight Alliance hosts gatherings, like bowling at Gilroy Bowl and a party at Green Glaze Pottery Studio. The gatherings offer a small degree of normalcy for several LGBTQ teens struggling to balance their identities with their family’s expectations.
“A lot of them thank me and tell me that if we didn’t do these things, they would sit in their rooms all weekend with no one to talk to,” Rachel said. “A lot of people think that if a few LGBTQ teens are hanging out together, they’re dating. We just want to have fun.”
There is a generation gap in Gilroy Pride, between the young, like Rachel, and the elder generation represented by Jean Bett. Bett, an award-winning drag king known as Donny Mirassou, is a trans man as well as a burlesque performer, a DJ and artist. Recognized as one of the cornerstones of Gilroy Pride, Donny graced the Christmas Parade dressed in drag.
“Believe it or not, my baby boomer mom got me into drag when I was 14 years old,” Mirassou said.
Mirassou has been doing drag ever since. She belongs to a group called the Night Flowers, a British term for alternative performers including drag, burlesque, sideshow geeks and many other performers who deviate from usual standards.
“These aren’t the kind of acts you see on Drag Race; they stand outside the box,” Mirassou said. “I took second place in a state drag competition a couple of years ago which got me a lot of attention for a nationwide drag competition for the men’s division, which is normally won by sis men. This was the first time that a drag king or a trans man qualified ever. That year I took third and this year I won Mr. Galaxy.”
At the Christmas parade, Mirassou wore the Mr. Galaxy sash and tiara, which she describes as very heavy, proudly.
“Donny helps to bring another level of acceptance to our group,” Freda said. “We have completed the LGBTQ acronym. He’s an amazing mentor for our teens. They’re all very comfortable with him. They think he’s cool.”
Freda considers herself the soccer mom of the group and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals goes back to your childhood when her mother taught her to respect all people.
“The biggest thing about this group is that the suicide rate of LGBTQ people, especially during the holidays is so high,” Freda said. “We’re a lifeline for them if they can reach out to us. We will march in the parades and we will hand out cards and we will do the get-togethers.”
Online hatred, being one of the driving factors in founding the group, has been steadily increasing recently says Gilroy Pride. The anonymity of keyboard warriors along with the election of Donald Trump has emboldened waves of online homophobia they say and an increased rate of bullying by teens is due to inherited prejudice from their parents.
“When Rachel was being harassed and attacked for being gay I asked, ‘is this 2017?’” Freda said. “I wondered who was raising these kids, then I found them on Facebook. These parents are setting an example for their children. They see how you act. You are their greatest role model and if they see you being hateful, they will emulate that. Hate fuels hate.”
The old “sticks and stones” adage has proven to be false. The rate of youth suicide, already the second-leading cause of death for youth aged 14- to 24-years-old, are two to seven times larger for LGBTQ youth compared to their heterosexual counterparts. Driven because of rejection by family, bullying from peers and by being squarely placed in the middle of an ongoing culture war, LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and be subjected to higher rates of sexual and physical violence.
Sitting with the leaders of Gilroy Pride, the Kogans, Mirassou and Stumpf at the Starbucks on First Street is in itself an act of coming out. The word, gay, is spoken, not in hushed tones but loudly and proudly. Mirassou, platinum-dyed hair, a painted on goatee, wearing a vest and tie with Halloween themed bats, is conspicuous compared to others seated on the outside patio. They are unafraid, unabashed and they are proud.
“There’s no shame in our game,” Freda said.