Alan Acosta is a self-described Latino queer. Now he may add the label: Purple Lily Award winner, as announced recently by the awardee non-profit organization, the Latino Equity Alliance.
Acosta earned his new title for his work with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the largest LGBTQ+ organization in the world. He served as board director for the center from 1991-1996 and re-joined in 2008. Today, Acosta is the Director of Strategic Initiatives.
Acosta is responsible for building strategic plans and advises on organizational policy and communication issues. In addition, at the center he leads the Legal Services, Senior Services, and Cultural Arts & Education departments. His projects and initiatives include the creation of “Mi Centro,” the first LGBTQ+ community center in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, which was developed in partnership with the Latino Equality Alliance.
Mi Centro is located at 553 S Clarence St. and is home to the main offices of Latino Equality Alliance, where the organization provides various community services and resources, from HIV Testing to legal consultation to general health and mental health services to family support services.
Last week, Acosta was honored at The 7th Annual Purple Lily Awards event, which pays homage to “community leaders who help create safer, healthier and inclusive spaces for the Latinx LGBTQ+ community,” said Eddie Martinez, LEA’s Executive Director. The event features musical entertainment, food and a silent auction.
Acosta was born in Whittier, California, but grew up in Los Angeles as part of a large family from his mother and father’s sides. Both of Acosta’s parents had seven siblings and eight kids on each side of the family. Acosta spent a lot of time with his father’s extended family, including cousins his age. Going to the homes of relatives and playing music was a way of life. Acosta’s dad was a self-taught accountant who worked in Van Nuys, CA, and decided to move his family to a middle-class suburb in San Fernando Valley.
Acosta attended Grant High School, where he was challenged by hardworking and smart fellow students. He says that most of the kids at the school were Jewish with whom he found a close connection culturally. Acosta believes that Jewish and Latino communities are similar because both are extremely family-oriented and both cultures churn out emotional people. Acosta credits the school for sparking his interest in politics. He recalls that many of his friend’s parents were involved in the Civil Rights and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s, while his family was more conservative.
Acosta then lived in Santa Cruz in his 20s, where he attended the University of California, Santa Cruz and earned his bachelor’s degree in Politics. He also attended the Colombia University of Journalism in New York City and graduated with honors.
Responses are edited for brevity and clarity.
ALAN ACOSTA, 69, DIRECTOR OF STRATEGIC INITIATIVES AT LA LGBT CENTER, HE/HIM/LATINO/LATINX
AS A 2022 PURPLE LILY AWARD HONOREE, WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THOSE WHO ALSO WANT TO CREATE CHANGE AND A SAFE SPACE IN THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY?
Be fierce and proud, and always look for ways to bring people in when they may not agree with you. Try to create connections among different communities. It’s important to bring people to your side and see that you have common goals, whether they are political, cultural or educational. I feel like too often now we get hung up on the barriers and the differences in the community. Back in the 1970s, we use to say the most political act came from feminists. My friends use to be feminists back then and they use to say ‘the personal is the political,’ which meant that doing personal things in your life has political outcomes and impacts.
For us, coming out as queer at that time was very much the most political thing you could do. Coming out had an intense political impact on the people who were around you. People still come out at their own speed. I was always amazed by the power that homosexuality has. I didn’t think homosexuality would change me, but I thought that my homosexuality could change others. I always felt that based on what they knew about me, that I was a good person, and that I was a hard worker, that all that would be a good reflection of being gay as supposed to being gay and that being a bad reflection on me, and I always found that to be true. I believe it’s very important to be out and proud in politics.
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE TO BE PART OF THE BIGGEST LGBTQ+ ORGANIZATION IN THE WORLD?
It feels amazing, special and empowering. I was on the board of the center and I had a relationship with the center that goes way back. I had one really good job left in me before I retired and I asked myself ‘did I want to have a job that’s only about status and making money or did I want it to be bigger than that,‘ so I decided to go back to the center and work. It gives me a sense of power in my heart and it’s a great place to put in my efforts and my skills that are unique in a lot of ways. I have been part of the movement for a long time and I have been out since the 70s. So I always thought this job was a perfect match before I retired. This job gives me the power of going home every day and knowing we make every day a difference in people’s lives. I like my job, I love my job and I like that we are making a difference in the world.
HOW DID YOU INITIATE THE CREATION OF MI CENTRO?
In 2008, the board of the Los Angeles LGBT Center had adopted a strategic plan and one item of the strategic plan was to expand geographically and in diversity. Back then, we had a very big organization with about 250 staff members. We were all working in Hollywood and that’s pretty central, but we knew our community was spread throughout the region. There was a lot of pressing things regarding health services and the senior services. Around 2014, we decided that we wanted to expand geographically, so I worked with the staff and we started to discuss where we would place this new center. I was fond of the east side, so we started to look around and one of the board members mentioned the Latino Equality Alliance and how they would be a good partner for this new project. She mentioned how their organization can grow and learn from partnering with a much bigger established organization. We ended up finding this place in Boyle Heights that would give access to people near East Los Angeles and other nearby cities.
WHY IS IT YOUR DREAM TO EXPAND SERVICES TO OTHER LATINX PEOPLE?
If we can get people to Hollywood, we can give them access to a wide variety of services. Someone might walk in the door because they need healthcare and they don’t have health coverage, but then we find out one of the reasons they can’t get healthcare is because they are undocumented. We can connect them to our legal services that do a lot of immigration work and they defend people who are wanting to request asylum or are in the process of getting their papers to work.
We have all these services and all these connections we offer, but we first need for the person to walk in and take that initiative, because if they don’t then they don’t have access. We must be in places where people can get there easier and not have to travel an hour by bus to get to their first appointment.
The second reason is finding a good place. The center is an amazing place and an amazing organization, but it’s big and it’s like ‘wow,’ you get overpowered by it. Having a place that is smaller but largely staffed by Latinx people is crucial. These centers have to be a place where people can speak Spanish and we have a lot of bilingual staff. It also needs to have a sense of comfort.
We also have to take into consideration the cultural distance, even though our staff is very diverse the center still has an image of being a largely white organization, which it is not. If people perceive it that way, then that’s a barrier. These two facilities and communities in centers like Boyle Heights and Moorpark help us to break that down.
HOW CAN PEOPLE BE BETTER ALLIES TO OTHER MARGINALIZED GROUPS WITHIN THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY?
Understand the complexity of the community. A lot of people still have an image of our community in Los Angeles of gay men being from West Hollywood and it’s just not that. People need to perceive us in the largest possible way and open their hearts to our community. There is also volunteering, and donating money and there are many other concrete ways that people can be supportive, but the human way is also important, too. Talking to your family and your neighbors and informing them about Mi Centro is also a great way to support us.
When we opened Mi Centro, there was a very large public housing complex across from us and it did change people’s feelings about the LGBTQ+ community. Every week, we have a food pantry fair. We started to do these fairs in Hollywood and we quickly expanded to other locations. Anyone is welcome to our food pantries, and you don’t need to be part of the LGBTQ+ community to get free food. We have a responsibility to create the space to be an ally and that’s why it’s important when we create these pantries.
People also need to willingly suspend their traditional historic concepts of what queer people are. I think it was [comedian] Chris Rock who said “Have you ever noticed when somebody hates something it ends up being in the family? Like, I hate people that do drugs and then there’s someone in the family who does drugs. Or, I can’t stand gay people …” and it/s because they have a gay son or a lesbian daughter. We are everywhere and that’s one of our favorite sayings, but It’s also realizing your commonality with the LGBTQ+ people.
WHAT IS THE STATUS OF LGBTQ+ DOCTORS AND NURSES IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA? DO WE HAVE ENOUGH? HOW DO WE GET MORE?
I think we never have enough, but we are beginning to see that a lot of medical schools in the last 10 years have begun to recognize us. It takes a lot of time to change the pipeline to becoming a doctor. You have to start in middle school and start telling yourself ‘I’m gonna become a doctor,’ so that they can become a doctor and I think it starts there. I also think that medical schools have a greater open list now. In the past, the pipeline has been narrowed. We also need to keep demanding. Our communities, for example, if you are a lesbian and you get your first lesbian doctor, your whole world changes because you have an understanding with this person. I remember when I had my first gay doctor, I was able to be more honest and comfortable and I knew I wouldn’t be judged. At the moment, we are seeing a lot of gay men and lesbian doctors, but I think the next frontier will be trans doctors and specialists in healthcare.
WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEND OUT THIS YEAR FOR PRIDE MONTH?
We need to move forward, people my age need to create the ladders to success for the younger generations. I feel like I had a lot of people like that, but I also feel like I hit a lot of barriers in my career, because there weren’t a lot of people like me in the same position of power. I would also like to say to build your power in these institutions, because that’s how we are going to change these nonprofit businesses and create ladders for these other queer people in the community.