A local community activist is representing his group on a national stage today. Justin Kamimoto, of Clovis, is part of a White House Convening on Advancing LGBT Progress in Rural America. The event brings leaders from around the country to Washington, D.C. to discuss issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals living in rural communities.
Kamimoto is the founder of My LGBT Plus, an organization dedicated to “connecting, interacting with, and supporting our LGBT-plus community.” He is representing the Central Valley at today’s event, which is hosted by the White House Rural Council.
President Obama established the White House Rural Council by Executive Order in 2011 to “make sure we’re working across government to strengthen rural communities and promote economic growth.” Previous events hosted by the White House Rural Council have addressed the concerns of women in agriculture, low-income families and Native American communities in rural America.
The invitation was the first of its kind for Kamimoto, who has been involved in nonprofit and advocacy work since he was a young teenager. In 2008, his family relocated to the area from San Jose. He enrolled in Clovis North High School shortly before California voters passed Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. (It was later overturned.)
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“When I came here, coming from an area that was progressive and very open about everything, it was different,” he recalled. “Every neighbor down our whole street had these bright yellow signs, and then to come here in the middle of high school and see there’s a church across the street with an even bigger sign ... that definitely sparked something.”
Kamimoto was inspired to start a gay-straight alliance club at school, one of the first of its kind in Clovis. After high school he took to Facebook, where he started LGBT+ Groups of Central Valley, an online support group for LGBT youth. It quickly outgrew Facebook and became what today is My LGBT Plus.
“We saw that there was a need for more resources, so we launched the website, a very rough Wordpress website, but it had everything people needed — frequently asked questions for parents of an LGBT-plus child, a directory to find programming in their area, forums, [and a] blog for people to showcase that there were other people like them out there.”
Members travel to surrounding rural communities to provide support services to LGBT individuals; they also represent My LGBT Plus at community events like the Old Town Clovis Farmers Market and Art Hop.
“The biggest thing was a visibility factor,” Kamimoto explained. “There were programs out there, but they were run by older, more mature individuals who saw times that were kind of scary to be visible in a very conservative environment. We got the young people out there and we said, ‘No. We don’t want to be hidden in the back corner of a Starbucks. We want to be out front talking about things and showing that we’re there.”
He said the organization adopted the LGBT+ acronym to promote inclusiveness and collaboration within the LGBT community: “When we started five years ago ... we were finding that every organization here was so specific to their own little niche and there wasn’t any overlap.”
The group was the focus of a Facebook Stories video produced earlier this year. The social media network sent a film crew to cover Kamimoto and My LGBT Plus members during Pride Week; the resulting video was June’s featured Facebook Story and, to date, has received more than two million “likes.”
Prior to his arrival in Washington, D.C., Kamimoto discussed some of the issues he hoped he and his fellow attendees would discuss at the convening.
“How do we expand resources into rural areas?” Transportation, he said, is a big issue for LGBT youth in rural communities — and even metropolitan areas like Fresno-Clovis — because the public transportation infrastructure is not as well developed as it is in larger cities. “They don’t have access to public transportation, or it doesn’t reach them. How can we provide resources, how do we get to them? How do we make sure they are connected?”
He also hoped there would be discussion about expanding HIV testing into rural areas and providing medical and mental health services for transgender individuals.
And then there’s the question that lies at the heart of his work: “How can we empower advocates to feel like they can call their hometowns home [instead of] feeling like they have to move to a different city?”
A desire to create positive change in the Central Valley drives Kamimoto’s work beyond his role as the founder of My LGBT Plus. Three years ago he founded Fresno’s MEAL (Meals Engaging All Lives), a nonprofit that brings community members together to prepare monthly homecooked meals for the homeless.
Recently, he turned day-to-day operations of both groups over to others so he can focus on “the next big thing ... a nonprofit incubator that supports the launch of grassroots community ideas to improve the Central California region.” Called Common Space, it will also be the parent program under which My LGBT Plus and Fresno’s MEAL will operate.
The opportunity to be heard in the nation’s capitol came at an interesting time, Kamimoto admitted. Many within the LGBT community are concerned the incoming presidential administration will not be as committed to advancing LGBT rights as the current administration has been.
“Hopefully this is a good conversation starter,” he said. “I’m trying to be optimistic, but I feel like our community as a whole feels very scared about what the future holds. [President Obama] did a lot of progressive things to move us forward.
“Our younger generations who haven’t seen the conflicts, they don’t know how to handle this new change that’s happening. They don’t know how to channel the fear they have. A lot of community advocates wonder about that, too. The battle’s not over ... it didn’t stop just because we have same-sex marriage, we know there are other issues to be tackled.”