When Aiden Garcia-Sheffield and his husband Daniel moved to San Pedro three years ago, they weren’t sure what to expect.
Aiden, coming from a small farming town in Georgia, and Daniel, a South Bay native from Wilmington, were aware of San Pedro’s diverse ethnic community, but they were still uncertain about how they would be accepted as an out and proud gay couple.
“Growing up, I had friends who lived in San Pedro and we would always go out to L.A. or West Hollywood to have a good time,” says Daniel. “[Coming back home], it wasn’t always a welcoming feeling. You just wanted to get away.”
Fortunately – call it fate, or luck, or just good timing – after a morning of unpacking boxes in their new San Pedro home, the couple decided to grab a bite to eat at the Omelette & Waffle Shop on Gaffey Street. That’s when they knew they made the right decision.
“We were hungry one morning, and I just said, ‘Hey, I saw this really cute, greasy spoon place down the street. Let’s go over there,’” explains Aiden, owner of Underground hair salon in Downtown San Pedro. There they met the restaurant’s co-owner, Mona Sutton, who immediately asked them if they wouldn’t mind sitting “family-style” because the restaurant was packed for their breakfast rush.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t really know what that is, but okay,’” laughs Aiden. “She asked where we were from, and I said that my husband and I just moved here, and she just lit up. She introduced me to [her wife and business partner] Leslie Jones, and from that moment we became great friends.”
Meeting Sutton and Jones and realizing there was a significant LGBT+ community in San Pedro, Aiden and Daniel decided to host socials with other LGBT+ friends. Inspired by First City Network, Georgia’s oldest LGBT+ organization, who used monthly potlucks as a way for LGBT+ people to network and feel comfortable talking openly with like-minded individuals, the Garcia-Sheffields discovered others who were looking for that same sense of community here in the port town.
“When I was coming out and I was 18, it was the place to go to meet other gay people, and to kind of be a mentor to others and be exposed to [this community],” explains Aiden. “I grew up on a farm, so there were no gay people, or if there were, they didn’t talk about it.”
He continues, “We had our first social and we had a good turnout, like 30 or 40 people. Everybody was saying, ‘I didn’t know there were other gay people here!’ We had nowhere to go. We had nothing to really gather around.”
In June 2018, after a gay Air Force veteran in San Pedro made headlines by going public with claims of harassment from neighbors in his apartment complex, City Councilman Joe Buscaino gathered a number of community leaders, including Supervisor Janice Hahn and Congresswoman Nanette Barragán, to raise a rainbow LGBT+ flag at the Welcome Park, near the 110 freeway entrance on Gaffey Street.
“There is no room for this type of behavior in a community that has always practiced and believes in human decency towards one another,” Buscaino said at the ceremony, per the Daily Breeze. “We live in one of the most diverse cities in the world and must live with respect towards each other.”
Sutton was asked to help raise the flag and was the final speaker that day.
“I was nervous to speak,” laughs Sutton. “Imagine that, I’m usually not nervous to speak most of the time. But leaving me for last and having me raise the flag, I mean, it was so moving and so meaningful after having been a target [for years].”
The crowd size and the overall atmosphere of inclusiveness during that flag raising ceremony made Aiden realize that San Pedro was ready to have its own Pride festival.
“The show of people that day was the clue that this community does cares about inclusiveness, and making everyone feel welcome,” says Aiden. “We want to do something that gives to the community, promotes more understanding of what being LGBT+ means, and raises awareness and advocacy.”
From that moment on, the idea for Pride on the Port (POP) turned into action.
THE LONG FIGHT
Since Sutton and Jones opened the Omelette & Waffle Shop 23 years ago, they’ve been staunch community advocates. From working with neighborhood councils to working directly with the LAPD, the couple has been instrumental in creating positive change in San Pedro.
In April, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the long overdue funding for the LAPD Harbor Division jail as part of the City’s 2019-20 budget. The issue was spearheaded by Sutton, as head of the Harbor Area Community Police Advisory Board. Even with all of that positive energy spent towards the betterment of San Pedro, they still experience their share of hate and harassment.
“I once heard someone tell us, ‘You’re lucky we’re allowing you to make good in our town,’” says Sutton. “It was really distasteful.”
Late last year, the restaurant even had some windows shot out in the middle of the night after the staff received some threatening phone calls.
“[Leslie and I] have tried really hard to carve out a life and an existence here in San Pedro, and we’re really well-loved and well-respected,” says Sutton. “That’s what I hold onto and that’s what I move forward with, and that’s what helps me not be scared.”
A FAMILY’S LOVE
For Tim McOsker, the CEO of AltaSea and a member of the Pride on the Port committee, his experience with the LGBT+ community has been through the eyes of his daughter, Miranda, who came out to McOsker and his wife Connie while she was in college.
“It became real for me when my daughter came out to us,” recalls McOsker, who’s also the current chairman of the board of directors for the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce. “She was in college in Chicago and found herself in a very supportive environment, which is a good place and a good time in her life to come out.”
McOsker continues, “My world expanded when my daughter came out because I spent a lot of time with her friends, and I got to know a lot more folks. Gaining familiarity, just spending time with people, creates an opportunity to realize that whether you are gay, lesbian, Muslim, African-American, a felon, a tall person, a short person, you realize that we are all human beings. Alienation just creates fear, anxiety, and misrepresentation. So, as silly as it sounds, just the idea of San Pedro having an event and having San Pedro Today feature this and showing that straight folks like me are participating, supporting and sticking up for it, helps.”
FISH OUT OF WATER
Growing up in a rural community in the south, that kind of familiarity McOsker speaks of was nonexistent for Aiden.
“It was rough being a kid,” remembers Aiden. “Pretty much everyone knew I was gay. When I opened my mouth, purses fell out. But I had a picture [of a guy I liked] in my car by my speedometer. It was this thing [back then] to put a picture of who you liked there. Everyone did it. Somebody saw mine and they told my parents. That’s how I was outed.”
When his parents found out, it didn’t go well. His mother, fearing for his future and the struggles he was about to face, told him he couldn’t live that lifestyle. At that moment, Aiden decided to leave home.
“I went and started packing my bags and my stepdad came in the room and he asked what I was doing. I told him what happened, and he was like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about her.’ Then he suggested I should live in a bigger city because this might not be the place for me, but ‘we’ll always support you.’ My mom is my best friend now. She has been for years. I love going back there to visit and everyone is super excited to see me.”
Eventually, Aiden became a hair stylist and flight attendant and made his way to Long Beach, where he met his husband Daniel. Ironically, their first date happened to be on the L.A. Waterfront to see to see Cirque du Soleil’s Totem in 2013.
“We had Baramee Thai food for dinner then went and saw the show,” remembers Aiden. “That first date is when I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I love San Pedro.”
Daniel, who works for the City of Los Angeles, grew up just a stone’s throw away in Wilmington. For him, having grown up in the South Bay, he was apprehensive of moving to San Pedro, not knowing how they’d be accepted.
“I’ve always grown up in a culture where I just want to be private and I don’t want anybody to know my business, but I married somebody who’s the opposite of that,” he laughs. “I was really worried that I wasn’t going to feel welcomed for being a gay man. But finding Mona and Leslie and doing the potlucks, all of that has been helpful.”
PRIDE ON THE PORT
June is Pride month across the United States and in many parts of the world. The month was chosen to commemorate the Stonewall riots, which occurred fifty years ago on June 28-29, 1969. The riots, which took place spontaneously in Greenwich Village in New York City to protest years of violence, harassment and an anti-gay legal system, are considered to be the event that launched the modern-day gay rights movement in the U.S.
While San Pedro has never had a Pride festival of its own until now, just across the bridges in Long Beach, that city has been celebrating Pride since 1984, and now boasts the third largest Pride festival in the country.
Knowing how popular Long Beach Pride is (they celebrated their Pride festival last month) and wanting to utilize that positive energy in San Pedro, Aiden and a group of other local LGBT+ residents formed the Bridge Cities Alliance, the nonprofit group behind the first annual Pride on the Port event. The name comes from “the desire to bridge all communities, and people, as well as the amazing cities that surround the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles,” according to their website (bridgecitiesla.com).
“We formed it because we realized that everybody wants to do good, and we needed a conduit for that for the local LGBT+ community. We see the Harbor Area as a whole, and that includes Long Beach.”
The Pride on the Port festival, set for June 15 on the L.A. Waterfront in front of the Battleship USS Iowa, is expected to draw a large crowd of both LGBT+ and cisgender straight friends looking to have a good time on a summer weekend to celebrate positivity, inclusion, self-affirmation, dignity, and equality rights.
“My grandfather was a WWII gunner’s mate, so I have a deep affection for the military,” says Aiden. “And I love the USS Iowa. I’m such a geek about it. Anything we can do to bring attention to that battleship and help them, we’re all about it.”
The daylong festival begins at Long Beach’s Rainbow Harbor, in what may be the first Pride festival that starts on one waterfront and travels to another. Harbor Breeze Cruises has donated use of their five-deck, luxury dining yacht, the Sir Winston (cheekily calling it the “Fairy Ferry” for the day), taking festival goers on a 90-minute, one-way party trip to the L.A. Waterfront, where it will sit dockside as part of the festivities.
While VIP entrance onto the battleship is 21-and-over, the main festival is an all-ages affair. Adult patrons will be able to walk around the festival grounds with alcohol. Teen tents, led by David Crowley of San Pedro High School, will have free food and activities.
The festival will feature music, dancing, live performances and a bevy of food trucks. VIP patrons will also have access to festivities aboard the USS Iowa, which will include a DJ, dance floor, food and cocktails. Headlining the first annual Pride on the Port festival is RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars winner and “world’s greatest Cher impersonator,” Chad Michaels.
Aiden stresses that you don’t have to be LGBT+ to attend, everyone is invited.
“What many people don’t realize is that you can be LGBT+ and belong to any other demographic that you can think of, whether it’s race, religion, where you live, anything, because those communities have people that are gay in them,” he says.
He continues, “I think that if people have any fear of an event like this, it means they’ve never been to one. What I would let them know is that there’s going to be great music, great drinks, an awesome yacht, an amazing battleship, and top-notch entertainment. We’re not going to be out there gyrating with rainbow wigs in our underwear. So, take all those fears, put them aside, and just come out and have fun. And if you don’t like it, you can always go home.”
McOsker adds, “I think and believe that folks will be really excited and pleased to have an opportunity to embrace the LGBT+ community in San Pedro,” he says. “As Aiden says, you can be part of any demographic and be LGBT+, and for somebody like me, [a straight man], my inclination was to be supportive and to embrace and respect folks regardless of their orientation, their race, their creed, or where they’re from.”
Pride on the Port festival is Saturday, June 15, along the L.A. Waterfront. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit bridgecitiesla.com.