30 Years On, Austin Group Still Looking Out for Queer People of Color
By Adam Hamze
Tonya Lyles came to Austin 15 years ago. Her employer in New Mexico had forced her out of her job, she says, and her landlord had pushed her out of her home for being a lesbian. Lyles was a self-identified queer, black artist looking for a new community to call home.
She found a statewide, Austin-based group named “allgo” — Austin’s Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization — dedicated to serving queer people of color. The term queer, once used as a slur against LGBTQ individuals, has been reclaimed by the community and is often used as a term for people who aren’t heterosexual or don’t identify with their assigned gender.
“When I came to Austin, I basically had to figure out where queer folks of color landed,” said Lyles, 44, now allgo’s artist in residence and host for West African drumming lessons. “Finding allgo was the piece that said, ‘OK, if I have this, I’m good. I feel supported. I feel like I have community. I feel like I have advocacy.’ ”
Allgo serves people of color with all queer sexual and gender identities. Located in a small, pink office on Tillery Street, the group has given Lyles and others more than a sense of community. It provides platforms for activism and advocacy, medical aid, sex education, film screenings, social spaces and discussions about being a member of an LGBTQ racial minority.
This year, allgo is celebrating its 30th anniversary, making it one of the oldest organizations of its kind in Texas.
“Allgo has provided a necessary space for folks who might be isolated otherwise,” its director, Priscilla Hale, 47, said. “If you think of Austin specifically, we are the only queer people of color organization. We want to create a space where we work toward safety. That’s who we are.”
More than 5 percent of people in the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area identify as LGBTQ, the third-highest percentage of queer people of all U.S. cities. It is also the only major city in the nation that is simultaneously growing in overall population but declining in black population. The Census Bureau estimated in 2013 that Austin was 73.2 percent white, compared with 68.3 percent in the 2010 census.
Since its founding in 1985 by a group of queer Latino Texans, allgo has focused on helping people overcome the difficulties of living at the intersection of racism and homophobia, says Hale, who has been involved with allgo for 18 years.
“We cannot personally separate those two things at any time. We just can’t. It is the anchor. It is where we move from,” Hale said. “We get a lot of flak saying, ‘Why do we need our own organization?’ That stems from people not recognizing the impact of racism — and racism is alive and well. We can’t act like we aren’t people of color.”
The small size of allgo’s target clientele makes fundraising difficult. The organization has partnered with other local grassroots organizations to stay afloat. Among its funders are the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the Trans Justice Funding Project and the Cultural Arts Division of the city of Austin. Allgo had revenue of more than $100,000 in 2013, according to its IRS filing. Hale is the only paid staffer.
Jesus Pantel, a contract compliance specialist for the Cultural Arts Division, said it has funded allgo for the past 12 years because of the diverse audience and perspectives the organization provides.
“If you don’t see whatever your particular community is on stage, you might not think that art is for you. By partnering with allgo, we’re able to have art available for all kinds of communities,” Pantel said. “There is no monolithic art — art is life, art is everywhere. If we can show that art is not just one type thing, that’s good for the city.”
Allgo has stayed afloat longer than most groups of its kind. Saul Gonzales, 55, came to Austin for law school before helping found allgo and says surviving for 30 years is an accomplishment. He is now an information specialist at the National Cancer Information Center in Austin.
“Every time we’d have a milestone, it was like, ‘Wow, we’re still going,’” Gonzales said. “It was vindicating because there were not a lot of expectations, especially from our detractors. Some people felt like we didn’t deserve to exist. We were accused of being malcontent and separatist.”
Allgo founders say they created the organization to survive. White queer communities weren’t doing enough to protect the allgo members from issues affecting them as people of color, such as poor police relations, gentrification and anti-immigration rhetoric.
“There was active organizing in the white, gay community. We were in essence challenging the exclusion and the marginalization of queer people of color,” Maria Limon, 57, said. “To have a place where you could in essence call home, of sorts, it was really, really important to people. That’s how we started organizing — and then AIDS hit.”
AIDS ravaged queer communities of color, and a number of allgo activists died from complications of the disease. Limon and Gonzales recall the crisis as one of the darkest points in allgo’s history — one the organization barely survived.
“Can you imagine losing, oh gosh, a good 50 to 90 percent of your friends in a matter of years?” Limon said. “It was a huge trauma, and we were left alone to deal with it ourselves. I haven’t coped with it completely.”
The resilience of the queer community of color in overcoming the combination of homophobia, racism and disease is a testament to allgo’s work.
Allgo is celebrating its 30th year with a dance party. Such events are crucial to balancing the exhaustion of activist work with celebration, Hale said.
“If all you’re doing is fighting, you will run out of gas,” Hale said. “Systems of oppression work off of elimination. If they can exhaust you, you will be eliminated. We want to focus on balancing joy, so we can sustain what it is we are trying to have in our lives.”