The Borderland Rainbow Center (BRC) is an LGBTQ+ Community Center in El Paso, Texas, which serves queer people of all ages. Since the BRC opened its doors in 2016, they have significantly impacted the LGBTQ+ community in the Borderland region through their accessible resources, programs, services, as well as their continued community outreach.
In October of 2015, Dr. Brenda Risch began co-facilitating a support group for the families of transgender youth as part of her training to become a social worker. When the hosting agency announced it would be closing its doors as of July 2016, Dr. Risch became motivated to develop more resources for LGBTQ+ people and their families. She then designed and launched an LGBTQ+ Community Needs Assessment to get a better idea of what form these resources should take. The findings from this assessment showed that very few needs of the LGBTQ+ community were being met. This prompted Dr. Risch to form a coalition of interested people before launching a campaign to found the Borderland Rainbow Center. Grace Perez and Deborah Clugy-Soto helped lead this group of people with the hope that a large enough space to house a community center, offices for PFLAG, and space for a queer-affirming spiritual space could be found. The hope was that a cafe, book store, or some similar space could be established to help provide LGBTQ+ friendly jobs, and revenue to help support the center. Grace, Deborah, and Brenda worked together to meet with various officials and groups to try to garner support for the community center project. A series of community meetings were held, and many people attended, offering ideas and suggestions for forwarding action. The name “Borderland Rainbow Center” was suggested by social worker Marlett Garcia during one of these meetings and after a vote of the over 40 people present, this name was chosen.
By July of 2016, the BRC found a temporary home, acquired non-profit 501(c)3 status, and established a board of directors. The BRC officially opened to the community on September 2, 2016, on Silver Street in El Paso, Texas. The community needs assessment guided the initial services and activities of the BRC, such as: providing a drug and alcohol-free social space for LGBTQ+ individuals, providing support groups, creating a meeting space for queer organizations, providing educational/cultural workshops, and creating access to health services. The BRC outgrew their first site in less than a year and relocated to 2714 Wyoming (pictured above) in May 2017.
Including current and former members, the BRC team embodies diversity. The current team at the BRC consists of: Executive Director Brenda Risch, Program Director Alison Westermann, Director of Diversity and Resiliency Institute Ashley Heidebrecht, DRIEP Education and Content Manager Diana Martinez, Pantry Director Julie Lucas, Volunteer Coordinator Naomi Estrada, ‘Healing Sexual Trauma in the Borderlands’ Program Director Alex Ramirez, Youth and Senior Service Coordinator Lorena Silva-Edwards, HIV Services Director Marie Camacho, Deaf Services Coordinator Alma Pizzaro-Gould, ‘Drag Queen Story Hour – El Paso Chapter’ Coordinator Moroni DeAnda and Social Media Manager Juan M Fernandez Chico. The Diversity and Resiliency Institute of El Paso is the training and education program of the BRC, and it uses this name to appeal to a wider audience of folks seeking diversity, equity, and inclusion education.
The current board of directors is President Tess English, Vice-President Karissa Doster-Hoffman, Treasurer Alex Marquez, Secretary Eman Attar, Membership Director Amanda Sanchez, Youth Advocate Member Jesus S. Ramos, and Members-at-Large Andi Tisceraño, Ross Ingram, Alexsandra Annello, Jessica Brito, and Kyle Erwin. The BRC also has additional volunteer staff, including committee chairs, and social work, public health, mental health counseling, and other types of interns. The BRC provides a variety of resources and services for the community, including their: Rainbow Kids Support Group (for LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 10-13), Family of Transgender Youth Support Group, True Colors LGBTQ Teen Support Group (for teens between the ages of 14-18), Adult Transgender Support Group (for adults 18 and over), Addictions Anonymous, the Brunch Bunch (free brunch for the senior LGBTQ+ community every month), therapy on a sliding scale, and a food pantry. The BRC also offers a ‘Bring a Book, Take a Book’ service where community members can donate or pick up fiction/non-fiction books, as well as their ‘Chat-N-Chew Book Club’ for LGBTQ+ teens. The BRC has four core values that guide its services in the community: respect, warmth, financial transparency/responsibility, and evidence-based services/interventions.
Outside of the services the BRC offers at their site, the organization has been increasingly publicly active in the local community as well. The organization has often been mentioned in local news articles concerning LGBTQ+ issues, spreading awareness or promoting events and services for anyone who might be interested. For International Transgender Day of Visibility in 2018, the BRC hosted their “Be-coming Out and Proud” event which consisted of educational workshops to celebrate the day. In May of 2018, Dr. Risch along with former board member and president Julian Casillas was interviewed by KCOS TV, an El Paso news station, on an episode of Insight. Within this interview, Dr. Risch and Julian broke down their resources for the community and what the BRC aims to do. When asked about the role of the organization in terms of helping individuals who have sometimes felt alienated from society, Dr. Risch responded: “I think we’re central to that role… we are the only professionally run, alcohol and drug-free space where people can come and socialize. Not only the programming that we offer—the support groups, the education, the safe social opportunities—but the fact that it’s a space where everyone is accepted… Anybody can walk through the door, we’re open to the whole entire community” (Dr. Brenda Risch, KCOS Insights 2018).
That June, El Paso’s Pride Month featured several events, including a free Youth Dance hosted by El Paso Sun City Pride, UTEP, EPCC QSA organizations, as well as the BRC. This dance specifically catered to the LGBT youth of El Paso and offered free food, dancing, and karaoke. In November, the BRC also hosted an additional food pantry where they gave away 100 turkeys to clients in need for the upcoming holiday. Around March of 2019, an increase in migrants coming to El Paso in addition to the government shutdown resulted in an urgent need for food banks. El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, which distributes food through 130 agencies, partnered with the BRC to feed migrants in need. The BRC provided lunch three times a week to about 150 migrants while continuing their regular services. “As humans, I think it’s our responsibility to help one another regardless of what your political stance is”, said Omar Ventura, former Refugee Meals Coordinator at the BRC.
In the same month, controversy arose within the UTEP student body after Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson was nominated to become UTEP’s next President. Students at UTEP felt that her nomination was unjust due to her anti-LGBTQ voting record and was concerned about her ability to represent the diverse population at the university. In response, a group called “UTEP Deserves Better” was created to oppose the nomination as well as a petition for the UT Board of Regents to withdraw Wilson as the candidate for UTEP President. This petition was created by Cristina Calvillo-Rivera, who at the time, was President of the Borderland Rainbow Center. “To bring forth a candidate whose actions have spoken louder than her words in that she has a horrible track record against the LGBTQ community indicates that she won’t serve in the best interest of all students,” Cristina told El Paso news station KTSM.
In June, the El Paso Museum of History hosted an exhibition in honor of Pride month called ‘Pride Cinema: Queer Film and Culture in the 20th and 21st Century’ which featured films focused on LGBTQ+ issues in the 20th/21st century. Local El Paso and Juárez LGBTQ+ histories were paired with these films highlighting the reality of these issues as they are ever-present within the Borderland community. In addition to the event, EPMH partnered with the BRC to exhibit two sections from the 1987 NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. In the same month, the BRC organized a vigil to honor transgender women whose lives were taken in the United States that year. Among those honored was 25-year-old Johana Medina, a migrant from El Salvador who died in El Paso after being released from Otero County Processing Center. The main goal of the event was to raise awareness and promote compassion.
Kyle Erwin organized the first BRC Gala in June of 2019, which was a huge success. An auction of donated items hosted by the incomparable screenwriter, director, and actor Del Shores generated much-needed funds for center operations. Local activists, philanthropists, and volunteers were recognized for their outstanding service and contributions. Borderland native poet Jesus I. Valles provided moving poetry and spoken word performance, while Michael Reyes, aka “Barbie” showed off her drag skills. Special remarks were offered by Congresswoman Veronica Escobar.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in October of 2020, the BRC received a grant from the Department of Justice, funded by the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, allowing them to offer therapy for victims of sexual assault or anyone dealing with sexual trauma for free. The grant also gave the BRC the means to hold multiple workshops focused on cultural healing rituals to help further the healing process. These services offered are open to everyone in the community, even those who do not identify as LGBTQ+. The BRC continued to be active in whatever ways possible throughout the year. Through transitioning their anti-racism training to be available virtually, speaking out in favor of legislation concerning the protection of LGBTQ+ rights and addressing the discrimination that still lingers in the Borderland, the BRC’s presence remained strong throughout a year of uncertainty.
In March of 2021, the BRC announced their LGBTQ+ Borderland Heroes Cards Project, a deck of cards intended to showcase role models and significant events in the El Paso/Juárez/Las Cruces Borderland. These cards, paired with information on the heroes, were to be used to bring awareness and educate people on the Borderland’s history and the people/events which have shaped the region. Within the same month, local Catholic LGBTQ+ members were taken aback by a statement made by the Vatican, which decreed the Catholic Church would not bless same-sex unions. The decree referred to same-sex unions as “a choice” and further explained that its position on same-sex unions was not part of God’s plan. The BRC spoke to news station KTSM on the negative effects this decree could have on the gay community: “It’s a big slap in the face, it’s just being told again you’re a second-class citizen and not good enough to be approved of… Up until this point, I think a lot of LGBTQ people were hopeful this pope was more open and understanding towards lesbian, gay, and bisexual people” (Dr. Brenda Risch, KTSM 2021).
In May of 2021, El Pasoan Daniel Hernandez came forward to KTSM sharing his recent discriminatory experience trying to donate plasma after his mother passed away from COVID-19. Daniel, who also contracted COVID, wanted to donate plasma in his mother’s memory and hoped his virus antibodies would help a patient in need. After filling out a questionnaire with questions regarding his sexual status, which included answering yes to a question regarding male-to-male sex, the staff treated him differently. Daniel was then told that his plasma was marked as “deferred” and there was no guarantee his donation would be used, as per their regulatory guidelines. Alex Ramirez, a staff member at the BRC, responded to this incident in defense of Daniel stating that screening questions need to change: “…this could be a homosexual man who’s been monogamous with somebody for however long but because he identifies as gay, all of a sudden he’s refused” (Alex Ramirez, KTSM 2021).
On May 17th, which is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, local advocates and LGBTQ+ members called for increased action and inclusivity for LGBTQ+ communities. Despite progress being made in recent years, new legislative policies continued to threaten the wellness of LGBTQ+ individuals. By this time, more than 100 bills in 33 states had been passed that would restrict the rights of transgender people, more specifically transgender youth, in the U.S. “We’re all human despite whom we love and whom we choose to be… Especially on a day like this, no one should have to fight for the right to identify as human”, said Andi Tisceraño, former board member of the BRC who is also transgender (KTSM 2021). In June, the BRC was featured in a KTSM article in honor of Pride Month, offering advice to those who may have some anxiety with coming out: “The difference between blood family and chosen family is immense. But depending on whom you can trust the most is what you want to have in mind, especially when coming out because you want it to be on your terms. You want it to be to the people you know will support you… As long you can keep that in mind and trust yourself to know who you are and whom you want to be, your confidence and who that individual is will blossom” (Andi Tisceraño, KTSM 2021). Tisceraño went on to add that other people’s idea of who one should be or who one is not one’s responsibility.
Since its humble beginnings, the BRC has and continues to fulfill its mission to grow with the community through empowering LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies. The BRC has made significant advancements in the care and resources of the LGBTQ+ community in El Paso. Through frequent activism combined with accessible services such as therapy, support groups, sensitivity training, workshops, a food pantry, and more, the BRC has created a welcoming community center for any individual to feel accepted and safe.