Introducing ‘Lavender Pen’ by John Duran, a series of interviews with pioneering and iconic LGBT figures across Southern California. In this two-part profile, Duran speaks with Vanessa Romain, who served more than 25 years on the board of directors at Long Beach Lesbian and Gay Pride and served multiple terms as the organization’s president. This is the first of two parts.
John J. Duran: All right. Let’s start at the very beginning. So Vanessa, you are associated, I think, primarily with the community of Long Beach, California. I think when people think of Long Beach they think of Judy Doyle, they think of you, the late Mary Martinez, people like that. And so, just tell me a little bit about how Vanessa got started, where you were born and raised.
Vanessa Romain: Okay. Well, I was born in Los Angeles at the Japanese American hospital and I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, which they call Watts now, but it’s South Central and I still fuss at the commentators when they say it’s South Central and it’s not South Central. So, I’m real specific of where I grew up. After growing up in South Central, I went on to move to Long Beach after a number of years of commuting to Long Beach to go party, to enjoy friends and meet new people. I met them in Long Beach and Long Beach became my home.
John J. Duran: What year was that? What year was that you move moved into Long Beach, if you remember?
Vanessa Romain: I would say I was 24, 22, 24 years old, so that must have been back in the early eighties.
John J. Duran: Early eighties, so in the early eighties I don’t think there was any Long Beach Pride in the early eighties.
Vanessa Romain: No.
John J. Duran: Right.
Vanessa Romain: There was no Long Beach pride. What was there was Southern California Women for Understanding, SCWU. And that’s where I met Judy Doyle and many of the other women in the community. Very much closeted people because back in those days people didn’t come out, and so we were meeting in people’s homes and had little rap groups where we would talk about things that would interest us. And then we had our little private parties and we didn’t do much out in the community because a lot of the women from SCWU, many were Caucasian, I would say 99% were Caucasian, and they didn’t want people to know that they were out. There were a lot of school teachers and professors that was involved with the Southern California Women for Understanding, but they didn’t want people to know that they were out or they were lesbians. So that group was very closeted.
John J. Duran: SCWU got started, I think, in the mid seventies. Is that right? Sometime in the mid seventies?
Vanessa Romain: Yes, they did. And they were primarily a lesbian organization to help other women talk about some of the issues, coming out issues and issues involving women in the community. It was a very strong force when the AIDS virus broke out for the men’s community, the women pulled together and had fundraisers constantly because it was something that our community was facing, and the women weren’t being affected as much by it for ourselves but for our brothers that we had met through the community.
John J. Duran: That’s how you and I-
Vanessa Romain: And that became a big issue.
John J. Duran: Yeah, that’s how you and I first met in the early eighties. So let me ask you, so the LGBT center of Long Beach got started in 1977, so it just started right before it sounds like you moved to Long Beach. Is that right?
Vanessa Romain: Yes, it was right then and there that when I came to Long Beach they were just starting the Center in Long Beach, and it was a real rickety old building in the corner down a side street. I remember because I started doing volunteer work there for pride and asking them to use their space so that we could have security meetings and meetings for, with a large space, that we could talk to people and people would understand who we were, and it was a safe building for everyone.
John J. Duran: Right. Now, back in that time, there was a time right before AIDS started where the community was just starting to come together. What was your experience, before AIDS was it very separatist between women and men and what was that like?
Vanessa Romain: It was very separate. The men did not work with the women and the women didn’t work with the men. And primarily, I think it was because the men were the forefront of the community in the beginning because they were the spokesperson because they were out there and they were very flamboyant at times. Or you would go back to looking at Harry Hay in the days of the Radical Faeries and the days of ACT UP, which was the beginning of all of that. The women were a part of it but we weren’t as out as the men were. So, the men were our spokespersons. And so after a while, it became kind of like, wait a minute, we have a voice too. And that’s when I think the trouble began when our community, fighting one another, is where the women who were, I would say the hardcore lesbians… the dykes, the truck driver type… didn’t want to have anything to do with men.
And so, it became a real conflict in the community because there were some of us who, like myself, who grew up with nine brothers and was just like oh boys are boys, just put them in their place. And then there were others who were like, “Well, we don’t want them to touch us and we don’t want them near us,” maybe because of some of their past experiences women were against being involved with men. And that is when the issue of gay versus lesbian came up. And that’s where our organization Long Beach Lesbian and Gay Pride came, because there was a big fight there because it was like, well, lesbians are first. Well, no gay is first. And so, it became a gay versus lesbian situation. Yet the women were still very much a part of fundraising and helping our brothers through the crisis of AIDS.
So all of that was kind of like in the middle of the mix and women got mad at men because here they were out in the streets having sex and creating this AIDS virus and we were having to raise money for it. And it was like, what a minute, we don’t get affected by this, what are we doing? And so, a lot of the men and the women, like I said, the staunch dykes, said, “Uh-uh (negative). We don’t want men around us.” And there was a separatism in our community that came that was pretty big. And we had to choose who our friends were. I couldn’t be friends with the truck driving dykes if I was friends with a gay man. Just like you were tainted kind of, if you’re involved with both.
John J. Duran: I remember SCWU and its early beginnings. And I do remember it being primarily an organization of white women in Orange County, Long Beach and Los Angeles. So I’ve got to ask, were you often the only Black female face in these meetings? Or what was that like?
Vanessa Romain: Well, that’s true. I was what I call the only raisin in the rice. I was always out there. I was always there, but I didn’t feel it at first. I felt very welcome. But then, other people started to notice that I was the only raisin in the rice. I didn’t think twice about it. I was getting involved in doing what I wanted to do. And then other people said, “Well, how did you feel about that?” And I’d go, ” Hmm.” And then I became more and more aware of the racism and the issues that are surrounding people, because I was one of a very few, that I was considered the angry Black lesbian in the back of the room when I would raise my voice.
Now for me, that was normal, using curse words was normal, because “Oh fuck you,” that’s no big deal to me. But they were just shattered. It was like, “Oh my God,” clutch your pearls kind of thing. And I would think what the hell’s wrong with these women, don’t they know? But they were so, I’d say sheltered and cloistered and being with themselves, they didn’t know how to deal with a Black lesbian. They had no clue.
John J. Duran: Were you the only girl in a family of nine brothers, were there 10 of you?
Vanessa Romain: Yes. Yes, I was the last one and I was the only girl. So that was why it didn’t bother me to deal with boys. I’d grab a boy by his hair chest and tell him to grow up kind of thing. It didn’t dawn on me not to act that way with other men. It was kind of this is what you do. You grab them by their penis and say, “I’ll cut it off.” And back in my growing up, it was acceptable, but I didn’t realize once I grew up or went into other communities that wasn’t the kind of thing you should say or do. But it was just a playful thing for me, but people weren’t accepting of it. They were very shocked at my behavior many times and I think that is true because they didn’t have any other Black people in their life. They didn’t know how to act.
John J. Duran: Right. It’s funny you say that. I went to a school, a high school and grade school, that was like 95% Latino and a smattering of white Jewish kids. I did not meet my first Black person in person until my first day of college at Cal State Long Beach. I had only seen black people on television.
Vanessa Romain: Wow.
John J. Duran: Yeah, which is amazing to think. Right? Because I was born and raised in Los Angeles too. But over on the East Side, over in Lincoln Heights and Santa Fe Springs where there just weren’t any Black people. And I actually waited until first day of college and went, “Oh, there’s black people here and they’re not on the Red Foxx show or Good Times. They’re actually here at Cal State Long Beach.” Yeah, so I went to college in Long Beach, yeah.
Vanessa Romain: Oh did you?
John J. Duran: Yeah.
Vanessa Romain: Okay.
John J. Duran: One of the things I learned about Long Beach is that the early formation of gay culture came out of World War II, that when all the women and men got drafted into military service they often gathered in port towns, whether it was New York or San Francisco or in this case Long Beach, California. And so, some of the early days of LGBT identity were those women and men who came from Kansas and Iowa and got drafted into World War II service and were in Long Beach and just decided to stay in Long Beach. Do you think there’s been a continuous presence of LGBT people in Long Beach that’s different than, let’s say, Silver Lake or West Hollywood?
Vanessa Romain: I’ve always said that. We have a different culture in Long Beach. We are very, very semi-conservative because we have the Orange curtain. So, it’s kind of like right next door so there’s that control of we don’t want to be like LA, we don’t want to be like West Hollywood. So, our culture is different. It’s a little bit more respectful of what we call like Iowa by the Sea. That’s what we call Long Beach, Iowa by the Sea. It’s very calm, cool, collective, don’t mess with us. We’ll take care of you if we need to. But the bottom line is we’re really kind of low key. We’re a low key community and very old because of our seniors of our community, which are very accepting. We have a lot of senior citizens. And I think that is why our gay community, gay and lesbian community, is flowing in Long Beach because people are more accepting and loving and giving than other cities that are more of a rat race kind of a thing. We’ve got a lot of old folks here.
John J. Duran: Let me ask you about, so Reverend Troy Perry and Bob Humphreys and Morris Kight started Christopher Street West in 1970 for an annual Pride parade. And then Long Beach got started in 1983. Were you in those discussions when Long Beach decided to have its own separate Pride parade?
Vanessa Romain: Yes, I think I was called in after the third meeting of Judy Doyle, Bob Crow and Marilyn Barlow. They called me in because they knew that I had some experience working with security and people who were a little disruptive, I would say. I always stood up for what was right. So, if there was a fight I’d jump right in the middle of it, man or a woman, and say, “Hey, calm down. We can do this,” kind of thing. So, they knew me for that. And so, Judy pulled me in and said, “Hey, we need you to help and we need you to do security.” So because of that, I would expect… at first I thought, “Well, what’s wrong with these big burley guys that we have in our community? Why can’t they do security?” And I realized, although most of them were Queens anyway, so they would kind of back off. So we needed the strong arm of the women in our community.
But it was a trying time when the three of them came together and we talked about it. We wanted a different culture. We didn’t want a West Hollywood. We wanted to be representative of who we actually were and that was difficult because we had to discover who we were, not knowing who we were, knowing that we wanted to celebrate our diversity but we wanted to do it with the Orange County people and the Long Beach people and the Lakewood people and the Downey people who were in this kind of South Bay area that nobody really recognized. But we knew there were gay people in those areas, so we wanted it different, but we wanted to do it. And when we first tried to do it, it was a picnic in the park. We had a great picnic and a lot of the bar owners were very supportive and everybody participated. So, we did the picnic in the park.
And then when we decided to do Long Beach Pride, that in itself became an issue for the community because then we had to decide where we going to have it and what street are we going to have a parade? And if the community wanted a parade and who would be in the parade? And all the closeted people that existed and all the things that we had to overcome, but it happened. That first year we had 5,000 people.
John J. Duran: Wow.
Vanessa Romain: 5,000, and that 5,000, it was just overwhelming for us because it brought tears to our eyes that we could actually bring the community together and do something without fighting or without anger but to educate the community. And that’s what we were doing. And we did it with grace. I think that was the difference is we wanted to do it with grace and we did it with grace. Everybody expected us to do it with a lot of anger and flamboyancy like throwing up the Drag Queens and wearing all the dresses, and they expected us all to be looking a certain way. And I think that was the issue, that they wanted to see that negative part of the community that we had, which was in a lot of people’s eyesight, the Drag Queens and the men who wore women’s clothing, which I call transvestites and things of that nature, they were looking for those kinds of things which we were not.
We couldn’t even find any in our own community. They didn’t come out at the time. So it was a very calm, educated, kind of parade, but it was very intense because it was our first. It was very hard because the city made us do everything, including putting the barricades out and picking them up and all of those, counting the barricades and making sure all pieces were returned, and just little detailed things that we eventually paid for but the city made us do ourselves because it was too costly.
John J. Duran: I was the attorney for the first Pride parade in Orange County in 1989 in Santa Ana, and I know the organizers there modeled themselves after Long Beach Pride rather than West Hollywood’s Pride. But I know that that very first parade there were thousands of religious right protestors. Did you have protestors at the first Long Beach parades or festivals in the beginning?
Vanessa Romain: Yes, and we still do. They still exist. They have not gone on way. Yes, we had many, many fundamentalists that we call Bible thumpers, whatever you might call them, from all different cultures. And I say that because we had the Black ministers and we had the other folks that we knew weren’t from Long Beach. A lot of the churches, the people who were fighting against us, were not Long Beach residents. They were people from outside who heard we were having an event and came out after us. The fundamentalists were strong. They had big signs. They had Bibles. I encountered one Bible thumper along the parade route when I was getting ready to go to the parade, and a Bible thumper stopped me at the gas station. I was filling up a moped and he took his Bible and he threw it at me.
And I thought, “Hmm, this is not cool.” So I picked it up and I looked at him and I says, “This is not going to change anything, and this Bible is not something you use against me.” And I handed it back to him very nicely, got on my way and went. And I think from that point on, it really made me have a sense of remembering my Catholicism, the Catholic good kid that I am, and I’m not going to use this book to fight somebody. It was ridiculous. And so from that standpoint, I was like, “Okay, these fundamentalists are all over the place and we’ve got to get control of them.” So, what we did was we contacted the city and made an agreement with the city that we let the fundamentalists stay on our parade route, but they would stay in one designated place so that not only we could watch them but that the city could watch their behavior.
Because like I said, my encounter at the gas could have caused a lot of friction in the beginning. And yet if I had escalated it, it sure would’ve been a beaten up Bible thumper, and we didn’t want that all along the parade route. We wanted to make sure we saw them. And so what the city did was, they controlled by asking, you can be here but you can’t be all along the parade route which would cause many fights. So they agreed to do that, but they still came and they still come. And from many, many years they learned our names, they knew where we lived, they became very taunting at people’s houses. Bible Bob, we had a guy named Bible Bob.
John J. Duran: I remember Bible Bob with the beard. I remember him.
Vanessa Romain: Yes, and he had a van that said Jesus loves and Jesus this and he would go around with this speaker and yell at people at their homes and say, “Oh, Rocco Vasso, God loves you. Vanessa Romain, God loves you.” And we would just let that happen and we would just report it to the police that we were being taunted by the fundamentalists. They were happy to get the reports because we report everything so that we knew that this could be a community issue in the long run. So yeah, it was interesting. The Bible thumpers have always been interesting. We had a sit-in one year with them. They didn’t know we were going to do a sit-in, but we did a sit-in and did a kiss-in in their section one year. And they flipped because they had no idea what was going to happen. But we said we had to do something to disturb them, to upset them. So, we planned the sit-in with kissing and they all ran away of course. It was great. It was a great experience.
John J. Duran: That’s so funny. I know Long Beach now has an openly gay mayor, Robert Garcia, but before Robert Garcia, there was Bob Foster. Mayor Bob Foster of Long Beach. Beverly O’Neill, I think it was Beverly O’Neill who was mayor of Long Beach.
Vanessa Romain: Yes.
John J. Duran: What was it like in those early years with Long Beach City, government? Were they supportive? Were they opposing you? What was the relationship like?
Vanessa Romain: We had only three or four council members out of the nine that supported us. The council person for the first district was the one who supported us the most and his name was Wally Edgerton. And Wally was this great straight guy who was just supportive. And then we had the Councilman Evan Braude, who also was very supportive. Alan Lowenthal was very supportive. And then we had Mayor Eunice Sato, which people don’t talk about her, but she was the mayor. She was an Asian woman. S-A-T-O was her last name, Eunice, and she was a little tyrant. She didn’t speak negative about us, but she did everything she could to make sure that we had questions asked of us when we would go before city council. She was the underlying, along with a couple other city council members, who were the right wing religious wing that taunted us constantly and made comments about things that we did and would say that we had sex in the park and that the women and the men were using lambs and bars stools to have sex.
I mean, they would announce this stuff at city council we would sit there going, “What? How do we do that?” But they came up with all these things and then we would have to go before city council to get approval of our permits and the people, they would flood the city council building with fundamentalists, and they would pray before the council meeting. And the council would allow the Bibles thumpers to fill the seats and do prayer before city council. And it got to a point where we said, “Okay, why do we need to go before city council if we have to endure these negativities, this is all connected to us and the community. So we talked to the city council and said, “Let us be, put us in the same category as any other organization that puts on a parade or festival, not make us go to through the city council process every year after year after year.”
We found out that the Grand Prix was one of those organizations that had an annual event that didn’t have to go before city council, they got their permits and they had their event and they didn’t have to go through the hate that we did. So, we encouraged the city to allow us to do that and they did that. They said, “Okay, okay. You’ve come a long way, Long Beach. You’re not going away.” We chose to tell them that, reminded them every year that we’re not going away and that they needed to find ways to help us to obtain our permits about having to face the fundamentalists and the hate and anger in city council meetings. So we did that, yeah, we convinced them that we were okay people and that we wanted to have an event for the city.
John J. Duran: So before I became an activist, I was a bar fly and I used to hang out in the Long Beach bars quite a bit, the Executive Suite, which was primarily a lesbian bar, but I used to go and have a great time there. John Garcia’s Silver Fox was close to there. I remember all of Jimmy Casto’s bars along, I think, it was Broadway or Cherry, the Mineshaft-
Vanessa Romain: Broadway.
John J. Duran: Yeah, and The Brit, and of course there was Ripples down by the beach. Were those bars and nightclubs the center of LGBT life in Long Beach or were there other centers or pockets of activity?
Vanessa Romain: The bars were the beginning of the centers, but the bars decided, and again, you’re dealing with men who have money, who said, “No, we don’t want gay Pride in Long Beach down Broadway. Our bars are down here. We’ll support you, but don’t do it in our neighborhoods because hate is going to happen in our neighborhoods.” We already knew that was going to happen, but the bar owners were saying, ” No, don’t do it down Broadway. They were our biggest advocates to fight us, was to keep us from doing it down Broadway because they knew that it would bring hate, more hate than what we wanted. So, our biggest advocates were fighting our own bar owners, John Garcia, you’d mentioned, Broadway and The Brit and the Mineshaft and all those bars, the Silver Fox, the Executive Suite, the Que Sera, those were known bars and yet the owners were not supportive.
They would give us money after we asked for an entertainer or to assist us with bringing in an entertainer, but they wanted nothing to do with the actual event itself or the parade. Yet they did put in floats and they did put in parade entries, but they just didn’t know what was going to happen and they weren’t the leaders, and I think that was it. They didn’t know who the leaders were. The leaders were mostly women, three out of four were women. All they knew is we hung out at the Que Sera or the Executive Suite. They didn’t know the women because we weren’t out there, so they became very hesitant of who the leaders were. And once they realized who the leaders were and saw that we were doing the right things for our community, then the men stepped in.
Then they started say, “Oh yeah, we’ll pay for an entertainer. Oh sure. We’ll give you $250 to do this,” but never did they openly just say, ‘Here’s money, have at it.” We had to go outside of our own community to get the money to raise to have Pride. We got it from straight people, interesting enough. We had some great, the owner of the Executive Suite was a straight man, Fred Covell, he had straight friends who were investors into property and all of that, which we had no clue until the day we talked about how we were going to get the money to make gay Pride happen. Fred Covell called some of his friends and before we knew it, we had $20,000 in cash. And it was like, “Duh, duh, duh, duh… who are these people?”
We never got to meet… I think Mary and I met one of the investors years ago because he sold us our home, our first home. So we knew him, but we didn’t know who the other people were who contributed to Long Beach pride the first year that we needed the $20,000 in cash. And we didn’t know how we were going to get it, but it happened. Like you said, with the bars, they didn’t help in the beginning but later on they did begin to help us fund entertainers.
John J. Duran: So I remember, I was trying to think the first time I met Vanessa Romain and I think it was with Mary Martinez, the two of you were inseparable. It was always a duo. It was Mary and Vanessa, Vanessa and Mary. It was never seeing one without the other. You and Mary, tell me a bit about, did you meet at Long Beach Pride or where did that start?
Vanessa Romain: Mary and I met back in the days of SCWU. She and many of her friends were very closeted. She lived in Orange County, La Habra to be exact, and so she was one of the Orange County folks. She worked for the University of Cal State Fullerton, and she got her degree and became a CPA and she was working for Ford’s corporation. And so she was pretty much up in the know of the women who were executives, and she was one of the ones who helped bring those women down to earth by communicating with them. She also spoke Spanish, which was another plus for us as a community because many of the workers at the festival spoke Spanish, the day laborers, and we needed help in trying to communicate with them. So, she became a real good advocate for us because she spoke Spanish to help with that as well.
So, she was an arm that brought one part of it and I was another arm that brought the comraderie of the men and the other women together, and we were kind of like a team. She was a voice of reason, yet she was Latina, and I was another minority who brought reason and we worked so well together and people saw that and we were partners for 18 years. The community was our priority and to do what was right for the community and we were a team. If she went one way and I needed to go the other way, fine, we’d come back and we’d join in the end. We would always be able to pull it together and that we communicated with all of our friends, whether it was English or Spanish or whatever we needed, our culture diversity was going to be okay. And that’s where she was a strong, but mighty little shit. That’s what I used to call her.
John J. Duran: She was, she was. I think I-
Vanessa Romain: She ended up working for the Department of Defense and becoming an alien investigator for the state of California. So she was a tough cookie, carried a gun and everything.
John J. Duran: Wow. Well, speaking of tough cookies, so I first met you and Mary at the LIFE AIDS Lobby when we were organizing the community’s response to AIDS, and you and Mary represented Long Beach. And I think it was the late Bob Craig and Wuzzy Spaulding from Christopher Street West who said to me, “You’ve got to meet these women from Long Beach. They’re amazing.” And I think you and Mary walked in either representing Long Beach or SCWU, or both, I don’t remember, but I was blown away. I thought that big Black lesbian is so powerful I’m going to get shelter behind her. She’s got my back, she’s got my back. And instantly I was drawn to you. Do you remember those early days of organizing statewide around California?
Vanessa Romain: Yes, I do remember. Matter of fact, I still have my AIDS Lobby’s book. I still have it. I used it the entire time that I have worked in the community as a social worker. But yes, I remember those days. I remember being one, again out of many, who were supporting the AIDS virus. Again, this was a gay white males issue. This had nothing to do with women, had nothing to do with color. It was basically, and then people were asking us why do you want to deal with this fight? Why do you want to get involved with these men? And it was a real anger thing. And we were just like why not? It’s our community. It’s who we are. It’s our brothers. It’s like our brothers, our brothers, and people didn’t understand that. But I was so adamant about this is going to affect all of us and if somebody doesn’t speak up, we’re all going to be dead.
And so, that was when you saw me thinking who is this person? I’m like, “Yeah, I’m going to fight for you, brother. I’ll stand in front of you and get the bullets.” I’ll take them and make sure that you don’t get hit because it’s not fair. It’s not a situation that was clear and educated enough for people to get it, that it wasn’t just gay men who were just fucking in the bushes. And that’s really what got me. The anger behind that.
John J. Duran: Do you think a lot of that came out of being a sister with nine older brothers that kind of conditioned you for that? Because you never shied away from being outspoken, being out front. I mean, I think a lot of people found you intimidating. I actually was attracted to you. I thought, “She’s a warrior. I’m going where she’s going.” Do you think that came from being the only little girl in a family of nine boys? Or was there something more at the essence of Vanessa Romain?
Vanessa Romain: I think it was growing up with all the brothers and the fact that it was my mother and I and we had to be, we had to stick together, because there was so many of them. I think that speaking up, she encouraged me to do that. She don’t take nothing from them boys or their friends, because again, being a little girl, you have all these fears for your child. So again, she was like, “You be tough. You fight back.” And that’s what I did. I mean, my brothers taught me how to kick butt, you would not believe. I mean just because, like I said, I’ll grab your chest hairs to get you in control because I knew it hurt. You know what I mean? So, I learned the vulnerable parts of the men, but I also learned that they would listen to me if I spoke up and if I whined or cried they didn’t want to have anything to do with me. But when I spoke up they listened to me. And so therefore, I learned from that experience.
I think I learned that as I grew up is that men are not superior. And I think that was it. They’re not superior to me. They were never superior and they never will be, but they were my equal and I needed to let them know that I realized that, and to come off of their high horse. Because again, we’re dealing with African American men who think they are in charge of everybody. And I had to say, “Uh-uh (negative). You’re not in charge of me, buddy.” And so those kinds of things came out even more so when you’re dealing with non-black men because white men get intimidated. Like you said, they get intimidated by you. People are, “Oh I’m scared of you.” I’m like, “For what? I haven’t done it yet. I haven’t done what you think I’m going to do yet.” But yes, I spoke up and I will continue to speak up. It’s just who I am. It’s from growing up in South Central and having to hold my own.
John J. Duran: Right.
Vanessa Romain: Basically.
John J. Duran: I know now when the community gathers at national conferences there are a lot of black lesbian leaders all throughout the movement, but I remember back in the eighties you were often the only, the only Black lesbian in the room. Do you think we’ve come a long way in the last 30, 40 years or you think we got a lot more long way to go?
Vanessa Romain: I think we’ve come together as a good portion of our history, but I think we’ve got a long way to go. Looking at, not the fact that they’re Black lesbians or Black people in the movement, I think the movement itself has got so much diversity in it that I don’t know that we’re together yet. It’s kind of a splintering with all this pansexual and what do they call it? Fluid and all those other terms that they’re using, is splintering the community to say where is the community? If we had to drop a dime or a quarter which side of the fence would they be on? And that is the part that bothers me growing up as a staunch lesbian, that people are getting to pick and choose now. It’s like, wait a minute, you had to be who you were and you had to stand up for that and fight for that, and now there’s no side.
It’s kind of like, “Oh, you can be who you want to be. You can be fluid if you want to. Oh, I’m pansexual.” And it’s like, “Okay, what does that mean for the fight? Where does that go for the fight?” You’re talking sexual. I want to talk about the fight, the change, the world. Having sex is a part of you. Let’s talk about what you are going to do with the community. And I think that’s the separating part that has come under a division is because we don’t know who stands on what side of the fence when it comes down to the nitty gritty.
John J. Duran: You eventually went to go work for that Congressman, for Congressman Alan Lowenthal, who you referenced as a Long Beach council member. Is that when you first met the Congressman and did that relationship then build over many decades?
Vanessa Romain: Yes. I met Alan Lowenthal when he was a city council member way in the beginning. I met Evan Braude in the beginning, who is kind of like a brother-in-law to Alan Lowenthal. When people would come to my house and do their advocacy about, “Oh, I’m running for this office,” and this and that, I would always invite them in. I never stood outside. I said, “Come in and talk to me.” And then I would ask them those pointed questions about lesbian and gay issues. And they always, the ones that I supported, always answered right. They were the ones like, “Okay, you’ve got my vote.” I mean, just simply by calling them in and asking them questions. And then in the overall, outing them in meetings, in general meetings saying, “Hey, Alan Lowenthal said he supports this, that and the other thing. Can you expand on this, sir?”
And so with that, Alan and I became friends. I mean, not only supporting him, but he was a city council member. He was in the Senate and Congress, and now he’s retiring. He’s announced his retirement after something, I would say, like 40 years in the government. And you mentioned Robert Garcia, well, Mayor Robert Garcia is running for Alan Lowenthal’s seat in Congress. So, this is happening as we speak that Robert is trying to take the place of Alan, which would be a perfect position because the 47th congressional district, which I then later on after my retirement with Catholic Charities, I went to work for Alan Lowenthal for five years as a constituent representative of lesbian and gay issues, senior issues and women’s issues, and veterans. So, I represented him in those four areas and he knew that I would do the right thing in all those areas.
And so he kind of took things from other staff members and gave them to me as I moved into a position of leadership in his company, in Congress. So, he was very good at supporting us. Any issues that came up for Long Beach or in our area he was always there in front. He would step out and say, “I’m with you, do what you got to do.” It’s funny, when we had our first gay pride event, that we wanted to have the bridges, and I don’t know if you knew the setting of this festival, but the setting of the festival, there is a bridge that crosses the street from one side of Shoreline Drive to the other. And that bridge was put up by the Grand Prix. And so, that’s a very financial issue to put this bridge up across the street so that they could run the roads underneath for the race.
And so, we saw these bridges and thought that would be perfect for Pride. So we went to the city to ask them to leave the bridges up. Well, they said we couldn’t because it was five weeks after our event and that it would people would have a problem with this bridge and blah, blah, blah. So I looked up bridges and about bridges and I found out that it’s the law. The law says that if somebody is on the bridge at any given time, the city cannot remove the bridge. So guess what? I went with a friend of mine and we chained ourselves to the bridge. We chained ourselves to the bridge and we spent the night at the bridge overnight. We had taken the key and put it in the dirt so we could get it in the morning and go pee and nobody knew we were there.
But we chained ourselves to the bridge and Alan Lowenthal, I called him in the middle of the night and told him that we were going to do this about 11 o’clock. I called him at home and said, “We’re going to do this bridge thing so we want you to know just in case there’s press that you are aware of what’s going on.” Funny enough, Alan Lowenthal brought us donuts and coffee the next morning.
John J. Duran: Wow, that’s amazing.
Vanessa Romain: That’s the kind of guy he was. And he stood on the other side of the fence and talked to us and seeing that we were doing okay, but he brought us donuts and coffee and said, “I support you making this decision.” And sure enough, the city didn’t take the bridges down. So we got the bridges that didn’t cost us $10,000, which was the original cost, and we got the bridges for free. So just chain yourself up and that’ll keep them from tearing the bridge down.
John J. Duran: I love that. I’ve never heard that story so that’s a great story. You and I are from, obviously we’re about the same age and we’re from a different generation, and I’m watching the younger millennials and the younger generation Z’s and life seems so very different from when maybe you and I were in our twenties. When we were in our 20s like you said, it was a fight. We had to fight. And to some degree I think we fought because we were hoping future generations would not have to go through what we went through. But sometimes I worry that the younger people don’t really understand where they all came from. You have any thoughts on all that?
Vanessa Romain: I agree with you. I don’t think they know where they came from, but I think that some of the youth are trying to as we continue to impress that the culture of LGBTQ people is about a fight. It’s always been a fight. We’re never going to give up. The fight is always going to be constant because we’re not as accepted, no matter what you do. And again, dealing with the children or the youth of today, talking about being fluid and pansexual and asexual and Q sexual, they are still trying to find their way. We found our way and had to fight and continue to fight for it. They will fight because they will start to see the prejudice. And they have begun to see the prejudices that they’ve had to fight, but they know that there’s more resources now. And so, yes, they’ve kind of lost their way because of the opportunity of decisions, where, who, what we want to be, but I think in the bottom line they all will eventually see that source of the fight.
They know that everything was not handed to them on a silver platter because they continue to fight. It’s going to be a continuous fight. There’s something that they’re going to do, they’re going to go, “Hey, what the hell is that about?” Whether it’s going to the hospital for COVID or to see your partner as they’re dying or whatever the circumstances may be, they will be hit with those same prejudices you and I have fought for and they’ll open their eyes then. But until that happens, they’re going to be kids, and I think that’s where they are. But with us, we came out running because we had no other choice. We had to fight or we were going to have to go and get married and do all that other straight shit that everybody else had to do, which many of our brothers and sisters had to do.
But one thing I do regret about that time is that we, as a community, did not think far enough to have the gay men and lesbians marry. I think that was a mistake that we should have done. I think all of us should have married one another and that way we could survive. We find lesbians who are dying with no love or support or family, and you see the same thing happening with gay men and their money’s going to charity, when we could have been supporting one another as a community. So, that’s the only thing I would think. I would’ve married one of those, I mean, one of those guys, I would’ve married a guy in our community to keep that strong force of family together. I would’ve done that. We wouldn’t have had to do anything, but yeah, we would’ve married.
John J. Duran: I was going to say, Vanessa, I’d be happy to marry you, but then the honeymoon would come and we’d have to figure out some other arrangement.
Vanessa Romain: Oh, we would definitely have to work out another arrangement, honey. Homey don’t play that, you know what I mean?
John J. Duran: So Vanessa, you’ve been doing this work for over 40 years, that’s a lifetime of work. Are there any greatest achievements or greatest regrets that you think it’s important for people to know about?
Vanessa Romain: I think my greatest achievement, and it continues to grow, I think is that I have broken some lines into the African American community. I have broken some lines into many of the straight communities, as being honored by the NAACP, being honored by the Links which is a straight women’s education organization, things of that nature that I’ve broken the lines to get into that are, not necessarily I planned it, but because of my work I have been recognized by some of those educators and people that she’s not just gay, she’s got something to say and we need to listen. And I think that breaking those lines and opening up those lines, I think for myself, I think Mary Martinez did it for the Latin community, the Latino community, we see more and more people coming out that are people of color now and wonder where that came from.
It had to be because they saw somebody like them and they continue to see somebody like them. And they started stepping out and realizing yeah, we need to be listened to. And I think that was true for me by seeing, like I said, when I got honored by the NAACP, it was like, oh my God, do you know what this is? I didn’t realize how big that is when I look at it now and go, “Oh shit.” But to me, I was doing the work that I was doing. And because of Black folks, and I’m telling you when I was involved early on, people would say, “Oh, you need to go to the Black churches and you need to pray with them.” I’m like, “I’m Catholic. I don’t know nothing about no Black churches.” We got them out.
So, it was that kind of thing where I was encouraged to go with the black community, but I said, “No, I’m going to be me and going to have to come and step up to the plate with me.” And I think that’s what’s happened. The Black ministers have stepped up to recognize me. They recognize me as a person in the community who will speak the truth and always be myself, always. So that to me is an accomplishment that I can say, “Hey, I didn’t have to write a book about it.” It’s just who I am and I really am proud to have gotten in and talked to people to see who I am as a human being versus who I sleep with. And I think it’s just our community has to recognize that it’s not about who we sleep with, it’s about who we are as a people and who we fight for. And it’s our rights, not because who we sleep in the bed with.
John J. Duran: We are almost done here. We’ve been going at it for 45 minutes, believe it or not.
Vanessa Romain: What?
John J. Duran: I know, I know. I always end these interviews the same way. If you had the opportunity to write the epitaph on your tombstone what would it it say?
Vanessa Romain: Wow, I think I would like the statement of, “Well done.” Well done.
John J. Duran: And it was well done, and it was. Vanessa, I love you so much.
Vanessa Romain: I love you, John.
John J. Duran: I love you too. Thank you. This was a brilliant interview. Thank you so much.
Vanessa Romain: And if there’s anything, anything at any time, that you need me for, you know I will be there.
John J. Duran: Oh girl, I’m putting you up front of the line. Nobody messes with me with Vanessa in front.
Vanessa Romain: That’s right. You put me up there baby because I will hurt a mother. You know what I’m saying? Do or die, baby.
John J. Duran: I love it.
Vanessa Romain: Do or die.
John J. Duran: I love it.
Vanessa Romain: I love you.
John J. Duran: All right dear. I love you. Thank you very much.
Vanessa Romain: Okay. Take care.
John J. Duran: All right. Bye-bye.