Battling Discrimination With Unyielding Pride: Marine Corps Veteran & LGBTQ+ State Senator Caroline Menjivar Continuously Shatters Barriers

The Catalyst Center Guest Post by Senator Caroline Menjivar, MSW, CA 20th District

It kicks in to protect you, makes you stop and consider all your options, alerts you to possible danger when a situation doesn't feel right. It’s instinct. All humans experience these internal alarms, and when you’re young you typically ask a trusted adult for guidance. Yet, for many LGBTQ+ youth it can be hard to know who to turn to or where they are safe. Some have a strong support system, but many others are forced to navigate interpersonal relationships and life’s obstacles alone. To hide their true selves from the people they love or those who have influence over their educational or professional lives.

This is why the world needs Pride. For those who have to avoid certain conversations with their families, friends, teachers, and colleagues for fear of being abandoned, mistreated, or even physically hurt. Pride is an opportunity for all of us to tell our communities that LGBTQ+ folks are acknowledged, respected, and included. When I am in a place where the Pride Flag is flown, I know the people there are saying, “We see you. With us, you are safe.”

Before the Stonewall Riots, the LGBTQ+ community was forced to hide their existence. They were afraid of harassment and beatings by both the public and law enforcement. They were afraid for their lives. It was predominately transgender women of color who first stood up to police in New York in 1969. They ignited a fire which swept through the nation, and on the one year anniversary thousands of people marched in Manhattan chanting, “Say it loud, gay is proud.” Now, across the country we march every June to continue promoting visibility of the LGBTQ+ community, and to celebrate our progress as we recommit to fight for intersectional equality every day of the year.

Sadly, history has a tendency to repeat itself. This year, Florida passed several laws diminishing the hard-won rights the LGBTQ+ community has attained, from denying medical care to banning drag shows to removing books from schools and libraries. Florida is turning back the clock by decades, and they’re not alone. Human Rights Campaign documents, in 2023 “over 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures, a record, [and] over 220 bills specifically target transgender and non-binary people.”

California is not immune to the rise in hate and discrimination, and I have seen it first hand in my district. I met with a gay couple whose restaurant has been robbed and vandalized, and who have been physically targeted for harassment and hate crimes. The most recent incident involved them being confronted by a man with a knife, who was subsequently arrested. At Saticoy Elementary in North Hollywood, we recently supported the teachers, parents, and students during their Pride Assembly. A small group of parents were joined by a large, aggressive non-parent group who travel around to school districts spewing anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda. Because of their rhetoric, a hate crime was committed by the burning of a Pride Flag outside of one of the classrooms.

I am no stranger to the ways our society, and the people closest to us, can shun this important part of our identity, can injure us emotionally and mentally, and can take away our physical safety. As a woman, a Latina, and a lesbian, my rights have always been under attack. I did not officially come out to my conservative family until I was in my mid-20s because of the treatment I faced as a teen. To this day I am still navigating being my authentic self around them. When I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2009 I lived in a reality where I was willing to give my life for my country, even though that same country did not fully accept me as queer, as I served under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The stories can go on and on.

Prop 8 was the first time I participated in public protest, and I began to question why those who have authority over our lives would want to take away my human rights. Now that I am a State Senator and one of those people who make decisions affecting people’s lives, I’m focused on supporting our youth, all our youth, so they don’t have to face the same issues I’ve faced alone. My priorities include elevating marginalized and vulnerable communities, not pushing them back down, protecting the programs people need for their health and futures, and expanding opportunities for all who are systemically disadvantaged.

As State Senator, I maintain my determination through the legislative process. In my first year, I introduced:

  • SB 372 Respect for Names Act- Require the Department of Consumer Affairs to record any updates of a legal name or gender change for licensees.
  • SB 729 Infertility Health Care- Mandating large-group plans to cover services, including IVF, and revising the definition of infertility to ensure LGBTQ+ folks are covered.

I’m proud of all the bills I have authored, coauthored, and supported to further expand human rights and access to care for California’s LGBTQ+ communities.

I’m also very excited to invite everyone to the first street-closure Pride March in Van Nuys on June 24, followed by a Block Party! We’re going to bring awareness of LGBTQ+ folks to our Black and brown communities in the San Fernando Valley, an area that is yearning for more queer representation. Join me as we stand proudly united in resistance against hate, discrimination, and erasure.

I didn’t always have a voice, and even after I discovered it I wondered if anyone would ever listen. Audre Lorde, the Black feminist and lesbian, wrote, “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” Now that I have found the power of my voice, it’s impossible to remain quiet. One of the greatest honors of my life is to be in a position to speak for the voiceless and to amplify the voices of those who still believe theirs holds no power. To all the LGBTQ+ youth out there, I hear you. I see you. With me, you are safe.

Senator Caroline Menjivar, MSW, represents California’s 20th District, Burbank and the San Fernando Valley. The daughter of Salvadorean immigrants, she was born and raised in the communities she now represents. She resides in Panorama City with her wife, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and their two dogs.