When Edgardo Cortez decided to host a meetup for the local LGBTQ+ community, his initial goal was to help people in Pflugerville connect. But the conversation quickly turned from hanging out to philanthropy.
“People have this need of helping each other, especially when we are marginalized people,” Cortez says. “So the question came up, like, hey, what is it that people around here need? And that's kind of how it began.”
Since that initial meetup, Pflugerville Gays has grown to be a resource hub for residents. They’ve helped connect individuals with food banks, medical testing, housing and even legal aid. But their growth as an organization comes at a time when both political and physical threats against the LGBTQ+ community are on the rise. While Cortez wants to see the organization grow, it also means they are more vulnerable.
“Our main goal is to help the community,” Cortez says. “But it brings some sort of fear, personally … I feel like that could be seen as a target that we're putting on our back for individuals to attack us.”
Pflugerville Gays refers to itself as a resource network for the LGBTQIA+ community and allies, providing assistance to anyone on the outskirts of Austin. Co-founder and secretary LeAnne Rheaume says they wanted to make sure anyone could get help if they needed it.
“Bad times, bad luck doesn’t care who hits it,” Rheaume says. “If we have resources for people, why would we gatekeep it?”
And there are a lot of people who need help accessing resources. The U.S. Census Bureau says over 12% of the state’s population lives in poverty, just above the national average of 11.4%. Roughly one in five Texans lack health insurance. And the state has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation. Rachel Cooper, the director of Health and Food Justice at Every Texan, says nonprofits are essential for not only filling the resource gap, but also sharing information.
“The state doesn’t do a lot of outreach or education on existing programs,” Cooper says. “That work really falls on community groups to do.”
Cooper says while several bills filed this session do address some resource gaps, there’s been little momentum on items like expanding Medicaid that she says would have a massive impact on poverty rates in the state.
“We’re not doing the most important thing we could be doing,” Cooper says.
But this legislative session has seen a host of bills filed that focus on the LGBTQ+ community. Equality Texas says over 90 ‘bad bills’ targeting the LGBTQ+ community have been filed this session. Among the measures are bills that would restrict where drag performances can be held, what kind of medical care is available to minors, and when gender and sexuality can be taught to students. Lawmakers have said many of these measures are meant to aid children, but Cortez takes issue with that.
“We know the U.S. is able to feed every child that is hungry,” Cortez says. “It's kind of one of those [things] that, the government, hey, you could help out, but I feel like you're attacking us more than helping out.”
The legislative efforts across the country dovetail with a rise in violence against the LGBTQ+ community. A report released by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, found that far-right activists participated in over 50 public actions targeting the LGBTQ+ community last year, up from 16 two years ago. 2021 was the deadliest year on record for transgender and nonbinary individuals, according to the Human Rights Commission. And LGBTQ+ nightclubs have become targets for mass shootings, most recently in Colorado Springs where a gunman killed five and wounded 19.
Cortez and Pflugerville Gays have also had to deal with extremists. At an event last year, neo-Nazis staged a protest across the street. In photos and video shared by Veterans For Equality, several individuals can be seen across the street in downtown Pflugerville, holding signs and swastika flags.
“I guess to a personal extent, I will say that it [doesn’t] make it more challenging, but it brings some sort of fear,” Cortez says. “As open as we want to be about having these safe spaces for queer individuals, I feel like that could be seen as a target that we're putting on our back for individuals to attack us again.”
Rheume says many individuals have reached out to Pflugerville Gays for assistance because they were targeted for being LGBTQ+.
“I’ve had people on my couch … trying to get back on their feet after they had the rug ripped out from under them,” Rheume says. “I wish we had more municipal help for this. I wish it was easier for folks to find help and not be persecuted for it.”
While attacks against the LGBTQ+ community continue to rise, there seems to be public interest in protecting community members as well. A recent poll found that 72% of Texans supported anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people.
Cortez understands the risks, but he endeavors to continue helping his neighbors in Pflugerville.
“Is it scary? Yes, it is. Our goal still is to help, to provide the resources that are not available,” Cortez says. “I'm not going to let fear dictate the positiveness that we are creating, the goodness that we are showing to the community.”
The Trevor Project’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386 offers mental health support for LGBTQ+ youth. For trans peer support, call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. Trained crisis counselors can be reached through the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.
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