Elicia Gonzales is a long-time queer Latinx activist and nonprofit leader in the community. We spoke with the executive director of the Women’s Medical Fund on her new role, advice for GALAEI, and the current state of LGBTQ people of color.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a queer Latinx who was born in Denver, Colorado, where all of my beloved family lives. During my first semester of college, I took a human sexuality class and began joking that it would be hysterical if I was the next Dr. Ruth. (I really hope people know who she is and that I’m not dating myself too much here.) When I shared this joke with people, they affirmed that I really should consider it, because I have always been the person people feel they can talk to about all things sex and sexuality. So in 2004, I moved to Philly to pursue a master’s degree in human sexuality education. I am also a licensed social worker. I really feel my mission in life is to support individuals and communities in being sexually healthy and whole. I live in Fishtown with the love of my life and best friend, Megan Hannah (who, herself, is a fantastic human being working at a school for youth in the foster-care system), and our furry, fat cat baby Justice.
You’ve been working in the local nonprofit scene for years. What has been your general experience in the field?
I have worked in nonprofits my entire adult life. During grad school in Philly, I interned at Congreso in an after-school program for youth and later became the clinical coordinator of the program. I stand in solidarity with the staff who work there today and continue working to hold their CEO accountable for her support of Trump. I also worked at Mazzoni Center and also stand in solidarity with their staff who continue to be brave and show remarkable determination to ensure all LGBTQ people in Philly receive just and equitable care. My experience at both of these organizations helped to remind me about the sharp distinctions between social service/nonprofit work and community-building work. Those lessons served as the underpinning to the work we did during my time at GALAEI. We recognized that it wasn’t enough to provide HIV-related services but to consider the way race, class, poverty, and homo/transphobia intersect with overall health, including sexual health and HIV transmission. I remain incredibly proud of the work our queer familia did during those transformational years.
You were vocal about racism in the Gayborhood before it became a citywide discussion. How do you feel about current happenings in the community?
Me? Vocal? Naw. I feel like I wasn’t loud enough! Sometimes I feel sad when I feel the pain, trauma, and anger of people of color who continue to be on the receiving end of the toxicity stemming from the racism. But mostly I try to stay hopeful. Hopeful that as a direct result of the Black and Brown Workers Collective and other brave — and overly fed-up — people of color, we have new legislation that specifically deals with racism in the Gayborhood. Hopeful that we have a Black director of LGBT Affairs who sparked nationwide conversations — and White tears — surrounding the black and brown stripes added to rainbow flag. Hopeful that nonprofits are taking institutional racism more seriously than they have in decades — or ever. Hopeful that there continue to be marches, new events, conversations happening that center on people of color and trans* communities. When I find myself getting angry or wanting to take a side, I just step back and focus on what IS working, what HAS gone right, and personally reaching out to people I love to say I’m thinking of them and sending “good juju.” That’s my jam.
As the new executive director of the Women’s Medical Fund, do you plan to incorporate your various intersectional experiences within the role?
Absolutely — in fact, it was my primary “platform,” if you will, for my candidacy and ultimate selection to serve at the helm. To be frank, when I first learned that the job might possibly be available, I said “Hell no, not interested.” So I asked the former ED, Susan Schewel, out for coffee to hear straight from her about why she was leaving, the status of the organization and board, and vision for the organization. It was only in hearing her speak of the vision she had been working to enact for several years that I actually said “OK, I can do this. I want to do this.”
She described that the reproductive health field is (finally) acknowledging how racial and economic justice intersects with abortion access. She recognized that younger folks, people of color, queer people were beginning to make up the majority of the field, at least as funds go. And that if the vision were to actually come to fruition, that she (as an older White woman) would need to step aside and create space for new leadership, ideally a person of color. I truly looked at her with deep respect and admiration (and a little like a unicorn — you DO exist?). That just hadn’t been my experience with other leaders who hold on for dear life, minimize the importance of leadership cultivation, and (maybe?) assume someone else (certainly not a person of color of someone younger) could do their job.
So yes. That’s a long answer to the question. I plan to listen with my head and heart to the staff, board, people who need/have had an abortion, and supporters to determine why this issue is important to them — and find out how we can collectively work together to achieve reproductive justice, whether a person needs an abortion, wants to raise a healthy family, never wants to have children, or just wants to survive and thrive in the skin they’re in. I am here for all of that. And I feel terribly privileged and primed to do so. Oh!! And of course I would love to see everyone’s faces at the upcoming happy hour, too!
Last year, you departed from your role as the executive director of GALAEI after six years in the position. What is one piece of advice you have for the organization as it continues to evolve from equality to equity within its programing?
I loved the work we did while I was there — where we went on a journey to name ourselves as unapologetically Latinx and queer. To say it was an honor to build on the legacies of David Acosta and Gloria Casarez would be the understatement of the century! Moving to the new home felt revolutionary and really something I consider to be a legacy of our work together under my leadership. I don’t think I have one piece of advice, per se. Other than to be steadfast, to love yourselves and one another, and to pause long enough to celebrate victories large and small. In this sociopolitical climate, with uncertain funding, constant attacks (both from outside our communities and within the Latinx and LGBTQ communities), it can feel very daunting to remain optimistic and enduring. But GALAEI remains the ONLY organization of its kind in the entire state of Pennsylvania, one of only a handful in the nation that has withstood the test of time (and politics, personalities, racism, sexism, etc. etc.), continues to shine as a leader, cultivates leadership, and serves as an actual home for queer Latinx of all ages. I support their efforts one million times over and have them in my heart and head always.
If someone asked you what is the state of LGBTQ people of color in Philadelphia right now, what would you tell them?
I would remind people that, like my Facebook pics shows right now, we are only getting browner, queerer, witchier, more gender bending, louder, stronger, and prouder until these old dinosaurs die out.