| | By Edward Guthmann
From the time he co-founded Oakland Pride eight years ago, Joe Hawkins knew he wanted to start an LGBTQ center in Oakland. The state of California had an estimated 27 LGBTQ community centers, and Oakland was the only major city without one.
A longtime community advocate and Oakland resident for 29 years, Hawkins said it was the divisive rhetoric of President Donald Trump, both before and after the election of November 2016, that finally pushed him to create a center.
"We started watching the increase in hate crimes since the election," Hawkins said. "They've gone up dramatically across the country, and here in California, they've gone up 11.2 percent, according to a California Department of Justice report. We saw that the San Francisco LGBT community center was vandalized, as well as the Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa County and the Los Angeles LGBT community center."
Hawkins added that he believes the uptick in vandalism "is totally related to all the hate rhetoric spewed by this administration. It's almost as if people feel permission to be hateful now." When Hawkins and his friend Jeff Myers, a volunteer coordinator with Oakland Pride, saw those reports, Hawkins said, "We said, 'Look, we've got to start this [center] now.' "
Hawkins, a tall, athletic man of 53, is speaking in Oakland's new LGBTQ Community Center, where he is executive director and Myers, 51, a surgical nurse at UCSF Medical Center, heads the board of directors. Above a T-Mobile store at 3207 Lakeshore Ave., the center opened Sept. 7—three days before Oakland Pride—and shares a collective workspace called Co-Munity with several nonprofits and startups. The operation is still bare bones, but $20,000 in donations came in the first month; more than 200 people attended volunteer orientation sessions; and 20 committees are working on a variety of issues: youth, elders, mental health and substance abuse, families, transgender support, and advocacy. "We've got a full calendar of workshops, forums, social activities, and support groups," Hawkins said. (Learn more at OaklandLGBTQCenter.org.)
Compared to San Francisco, where the percentage of black people dropped from 14 percent in 1970 to less than 6 percent today—"One of the worst examples of gentrification in the nation," Hawkins said—Oakland has one of the most racially and ethnically diverse populations in the country. And one of the gayest: According to a 2013 report in the gay magazine The Advocate, Oakland "boasts more lesbian couples per capita than any other major American city and ranks third in gay- and lesbian-headed households."
The new LGBTQ center is also the first in California, Hawkins said, to be started by African Americans. "Some people say, 'Congratulations on starting the first black LGBTQ center.' But in fact, this is a center for everyone, and the people who come here are all ethnicities. Can't black people create things that serve everyone? Yes, we can."
Raised in Detroit and Flint, Mich., Hawkins spent 10 years in the U.S. Army and moved to the Bay Area in 1988. In addition to co-founding Oakland Pride, he was a founding member and organizer of the East Bay AIDS Walk, regional director of Innovative Housing in Marin County, and CEO of OpNet Community Ventures in San Francisco, a high-tech development and training program for low-income youth.
"Joe is able to motivate a lot of people in this community because of the work he does," Myers said. "A lot of people talk crap and put their names out and have titles. But look at their action. So many things Joe has done have resonated and affected our community in positive ways."
Hawkins traces the roots of his LGBTQ activism to 1989, the year he fought for custody of his son, Maurice. His son's mother, with whom he shared custody, was killed in a fire in Detroit, "and after she died, her family tried to take my son away from me. Because they knew I'm gay. They were saying, 'Oh, you're going to raise him to be gay.' So a legal battle ensued," he said.
"People were telling me, 'There's no way as a black gay man that you're going to win a legal battle to keep your child. You just need to surrender your son.' I was preparing to do that."
One day a friend of a friend approached Hawkins and said, ' "I have someone I want you to talk to, " ' Hawkins recalled. The next day he received a phone call that changed his life—from Oprah Winfrey.
"She said, 'We really want you on our show. We know what the mother's family thinks, that you shouldn't parent your child. But what does your own family think?' I said, "My family's very religious, and my mother's not on board with it, either.
"Oprah said, 'Do you think she would come on the show and talk about that?' " Hawkins gave Winfrey his mother's phone number, but when someone from her staff called, his mother thought it was a prank and hung up. Finally, Hawkins and Winfrey set up a three-way call. "I said, 'Mom, this is Joe. Oprah's on the phone now.' She said, 'This is Oprah Winfrey.' My mother screamed."
On the strength of his appearance on Oprah, on which his mother also appeared, Hawkins acquired a team of attorneys and won his case. "I raised my son. And today he is 34, and I have three beautiful grandchildren." The custody fight "started my life as an activist and community organizer around LGBTQ issues," he said. "My passion came from my love for my son."
Until he went on the Oprah show, Hawkins said, "I couldn't find help. What about people who are looking for support and can't find it? That got me thinking that we have to create as many resources as possible to help LGBTQ people on a variety of issues and the only way to do that is to build community.
"You've gotta build community across cultures; it's gotta be all of us working together."
Joe Hawkins, left, and Jeff Myers are the primary movers behind Oakland's new LGBTQ Community Center. Photo by Lance Yamamoto.