Reviving spirit and reviving pride in downtown El Paso

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By Danielle Kaiser

The revitalization of downtown El Paso is not confined to just the expansion of businesses and new housing complexes; the unique people who inhabit the area are aiding in the effort as well. The LGBT community in particular is breathing new life into the area and changing the culture just by being who they are.

This an impact long in the making. Long before the recent wave of downtown revitalization efforts, El Paso’s LGBT community forged from shuttered commercial space Pride Square, a cluster of bars at Stanton Street and Franklin Avenue that is now a staple Downtown experience for area residents.

Spearheaded by LGBT advocates and the people of Sun City Pride and fueled by everyday customers, this area represents a lively and unique part of El Paso’s culture. The Toolbox, one of Pride Square’s most prominent bars, has been working hard to represent the city’s gay community while still being inclusive of the straight community.

“I think it’s nice for us to have our own little area because sometimes when you go out somewhere you don’t always feel comfortable, so this is somewhere where you’re gonna feel comfortable all the time,” Toolbox bartender Daniel Frias said. “We have a variety of hetero and gay people as well, so it’s kind of like a good mix where everybody’s welcome.”

In terms of revitalization, members of the gay community stand as the pioneers who have been pushing the effort forward for years. Their commitment helped reshape a key swath of Downtown El Paso and it created a commercial home for the region’s gay community.

Photo by Danielle Kaiser for Journalism in July

Photo by Danielle Kaiser for Journalism in July

It wasn’t always easy for El Paso’s gay community to express themselves and be accepted. Old Plantation, El Paso’s oldest gay club, was a primary example of a long-standing establishment that stood as a representative for the LGBT community. The club was open for 36 successful years until its permanent closing in 2012, and its reign was held during a time in which it the LGBT lifestyle was not accepted. Stephanie Juarez, a regular at Pride Square, speaks from the experience of being openly gay at a time when it was dangerous.

“Back when the OP was open, it was still a very bad time to be out and proud. As soon as I started hitting these bars, you learn more and more to be comfortable in your own skin, because there’s so many other people like you,” Juarez said.

Pride Square is an important financial contributor to the city as well as being a place for the gay community to be themselves. Each bar brings about a crowd that helps the growth of business and improves the entire downtown area.

“Pride Square, along with cities that have visible LGBT districts, create not only safe spaces for the community, but also can be an economic hub for business growth and development for city centers,” former consultant for the downtown management district and LGBT advocate with prior work at GLAAD and Equality California, Eddie Gutierrez said.

The struggles of the LGBT population led to the fruition of Pride Square and the community that blossomed around it. What was once a group faced with immense adversity and had few rights has become a thriving and tight-knit community. The area has become a second home to every person who has found a niche under the vast umbrella that is El Paso’s LGBT community due to the support of people just like them. Pride Square is a defining part of the culture of downtown and will continue to influence the people of the city well into the future.

“It helps us actually feel like we’re at home; like we have a place. I don’t like going out to different bars because I feel like this is a home to me,” regular Pride Square drag performer Rayand Farris said.

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