When Zahrya Garcia moved to Petaluma from Daly City with her wife three years ago, she was fearful about how the community would view the same-sex couple.
Her wife, Chelsea, who Garcia married in 2014, was pregnant with their first child when they made the more than 40-mile move from south of San Francisco to Sonoma County after getting priced out of the housing market.
“I didn’t want to move here to the countryside, as I like to call it,” said Garcia, 29, who grew up in Georgia. “I moved away from the country to be in the city where I knew I would be accepted. I’m not immune to discrimination and racism — it happens anywhere and it can even happen in San Francisco. I just felt like I could be me in San Francisco where I have resources that embrace diversity. When you walk down the street, no one cares what you look like or who you love. I was very scared.”
Garcia, a former undocumented immigrant who received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals benefits after her parents brought her to America from Acapulco, Mexico when she was 1, was no stranger to feeling like the other. At 18, she came out to her Baptist parents, finally sharing a secret she’d concealed since she was 5.
In Petaluma, it was easy for the family to feel isolated, Garcia said. Amid odd looks and awkward conversations about gender in public restrooms, she forced herself onto Facebook to find resources in the area. She tapped into “Queer Mamas,” a global group that allowed her to make connections with other area families to set up play dates.
“It was nice to at least have that, I felt a little better knowing that at least within Sonoma County, there were queer families,” she said. “As for Petaluma, I was like ‘where are you?’ I still have to drive up to Santa Rosa or Rohnert Park to have play dates. Petaluma is obviously still a work in progress … There’s maybe three queer families that I know that live in Petaluma and we all have different aged kids.”
Working with other LGBTQI parents, including Sonoma’s Leslie Wiser, Garcia helped create North Bay LGBTQI Families, The group’s mission is to build community through events, raise awareness about queer families and advocate for rights and protection. The organization also holds workshops and symposiums, including its second annual LGBTQI Family Formation Symposium last month in Santa Rosa.
Like the Garcias, many of the group’s members relocated to rural areas from urban settings, according to its Facebook page. About 180 families are involved, creating a critical network to help with issues from education to planning for a family to everyday discrimination.
“(We thought) why don’t we just make out own group that gives resources to queer families so that we can be advocates … recognition and visibility lacks in Sonoma County,” Garcia said.
A 2010 study by Gary Gates, a researcher at UCLA’s Williams Institute, showed that there are 7.63 gay couples per 1,000 households in Sonoma County. The research was based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey. Despite Sonoma County’s reputation for LGBQTI pride, gay rights advocates say there’s still more work to be done.
The Garcias, now raising two children, Pyas, 2, and Tybee, 4 months, are facing their next challenge as they look for a school for Pyas. At a recent fair, only three out of 20 schools were able to tell the Garcais about how they create an inclusive environment for students of all backgrounds. As Garcia is learning how to be an advocate for her son, North Bay LGBTQI families is also working to make educational environments more inclusive, she said.
“It’s frustrating and also scary because I’m sending my kids to schools where they’re going to be exposed to the possibility of feeling different,” Garcia said. “I want to make sure my children don’t feel different ... No child should feel like they’re different and I want schools to be prepared for that.”
The group is also hosting a handful of upcoming events, including an April 7 spring egg hunt in Rohnert Park and a contingent at the Santa Rosa Pride Parade followed by a queer camp out.
Events such as those coupled with advocacy are key for a demographic that can sometimes feel invisible, said Ian Stanley Posadas, program director for LGBTQ Connection, which focuses on creating a vibrant and diverse community in Sonoma and Napa counties.
“There are people from a lot of different backgrounds and with a lot of different experiences that are looking to be connected with other folks and feel like part of a community,” he said. “Having an organization like North Bay LGBTQI Families really focusing on that aspect and what it’s like to be queer and raising a family in the North Bay and where can they find support and resources so they don’t have to leave the area they call home is really important.”
San Francisco-based nonprofit Our Family Coalition, an advocacy group for LGBTQI families, fiscally sponsors the organization. Polly Pagenhart, the coalition’s communications and policy director who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” commended the group’s work. Pagenhart said that often, queer families are questioned by members of the community and made to justify their existence and their families.
Constantly acting as a “role model” for the gay community can be exhausting, and having an outlet to spend time with other queer families provides a much-needed outlet, they said. Often, queer families aren’t connected with one another, so providing that network is crucial.
Advocating for simple changes to the education system – such as changing the language on forms from “mother and father” to more inclusive terminology, displaying photos of non-traditional families, providing educational materials that highlight and normalize family diversity – are also important, Pagenhart said.
“People keep seeing a world more realized than it currently is,” they said. “Thank heavens for a better world that keeps coming with every generation … I have nothing but respect for what the North Bay LGBTQI Families is doing.”