GALAEI: A Queer Latin@ Social Justice organization will celebrate 25 years of sex positive, HIV/AIDS and LGBT advocacy with a gala next month, honoring the organization’s storied history and future.
The party will coincide with the fifth annual David Acosta Revolutionary Leader Award ceremony, 6-9 p.m. May 9 at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. The gala will include dancing, a silent auction, food and an open bar.
GALAEI, originally the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative, was launched in June 1989 by Acosta, making it the oldest Latino HIV/AIDS organization in the United States, along with Bienestar in Los Angeles.
Acosta served as the executive director of GALAEI for 10 years and said before the organization was founded, there were no programs or organizations dedicated to the LGBT Latino community, especially important in light of the burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“There was fear around HIV/AIDS because there was so much backlash and in some degrees, the LGBT community was being blamed for the epidemic,” he said. “It was imperative for me to have a program that unapologetically focused on gay male sexuality in a positive light while also discussing HIV/AIDS that was being weighed down in a social and political way.”
Acosta said attaining funding for the organization was difficult at first because of scant government and foundational support.
“Back then, most of the funding efforts that were taking place were through fundraisers and donations made by gay men,” he said. “Foundations weren’t stepping up and I think in some degrees there was competition for limited resources, so it was very difficult. You felt like you were always swimming against the tide. We had to do a lot with very little.”
Acosta said GALAEI faced many other challenges in its early days besides funding, primarily in terms of visibility.
“The biggest challenge was trying to get the organization established and having it recognized and becoming more visible in the Latino community,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be seen as the AIDS organization because I really wanted to create an organization that would broaden the context of conversations around LGBT Latino issues.”
The group took any opportunity it could to collaborate with community organizations and leaders.
But the anti-LGBT stigma at the time kept a lot of supporters at bay.
“It was incredibly difficult but also incredibly painful,” Acosta said. “There were many LGBT Latinos in positions of power but they were very closeted, so people stayed away. It was not easy and even trying to take the message into the community was really tough because HIV/AIDS was shining a spotlight on the community that didn’t want the spotlight to be shined on them.”
Acosta said the organization dedicated itself to creative unique programming to set itself apart, a principle that still resonates today.
In the earlier days, the growing staff would host mini film festivals and salsa nights. For the first two years, Acosta ran the organization solo, but ultimately hired two staffers, who helped launch new programming and in turn grow the employee base. The organization now has eight employees.
GALAEI was originally housed in the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office and is currently located at 1207 Chestnut St.
Acosta said he has been most proud of the organization’s youth program, which is one of the oldest in the country. He added that the SEXO Latex campaign is also a highlight of GALAEI’s work.
“It is so revolutionary and it came out of this idea of connecting gayness with pride and this idea of visions of ourselves and Latino men, which were absent from mainstream media and mainstream LGBT representation,” he said.
Acosta stepped down in 1999 and was succeeded by Gloria Casarez, who helmed the organization until 2008, when she became the mayor’s director of LGBT affairs.
Casarez said the organization represented many facets of her identity.
“It had everything to do with who I was,” she said. “GALAEI was one of the few organizations that was founded as a harm-reduction organization and at the time, I was doing anti-poverty work, so GALAEI was a place where I felt I could learn and do important community work.”
During her leadership, Casarez helped develop and implement the Trans-Health Information Project, the first health program in the city to provide services to transgender individuals.
“Organizations had been reaching trans folks a little bit here and there but as a result of TIP, services for transgender individuals have increased across the board,” Casarez said.
Elicia Gonzales took the reins of the organization in December 2010, after Casarez’s successors Louis Bonilla and Tiffany Thompson stepped down.
“When I came to Philly in 2004, I first learned of GALAEI at OutFest. It was the first organization that didn’t force me to compartmentalize my identity as a queer Latina woman,” she said.
Among her highlights, Gonzales said, was the Positivo campaign, which projects positive images of gay and HIV-positive Latinos.
“I didn’t realize the magnitude of the Positivo campaign and I had no idea that it was the first time for a project of its kind in the city,” she said. “People know about the campaign and it was an honor to be able to put our philosophy of being strength-based and being positive into such a beautiful campaign.”
Gonzales said since starting as executive director, she has been determined to “bring the sexy back” to the organization.
“I am proud of the work we do at GALAEI in terms of being sex-positive,” she said.
Acosta said he has admired how both Casarez and Gonzales have steered the organization.
“They have truly embraced and understood the work that GALAEI set out to do initially and I think through Gloria and Elicia, they understand that it’s a public-health organization but it is also about social and economic justice work and it is about representing people and giving people a voice and being an advocate,” he said. “So I am very proud of them.”
Looking ahead, Gonzales said she hopes to ultimately move the organization to North Philadelphia to reach more LGBT Latino populations.
“We want to be in the center of the vibrant Latino community, which is in desperate need for a queer organization for queer folks,” she said.
Gonzales said GALAEI’s strength is in its ability to embrace people of all identiies.
“We have footing in the HIV, Latino and queer world. People describe GALAEI as a family and that is the vibe we give off. Yes, we are a Latino organization, but Latino is how we serve, not who we serve.”