The 2019 Spokane Pride and Rainbow Festival drew a record 27,000 people making it the largest free Pride festival in the Inland Northwest and surrounding areas.
“It’s crazy!” an animated Esteban Herevia said. One of the local Pride leaders, he gleefully admits, “I never thought I’d have the privilege to do anything like this!”
That’s an understatement; some would argue that Herevia is lucky to be alive. It wasn’t that long ago that a younger Herevia, who grew up in conservative and deeply religious Fresno, Calif., was physically hurt by his father. He was 15 and wanted to level with his parents about being gay.
“It didn’t go well,” he said, another understatement from a man who, despite all he’s been through, is an optimistic force for positive change. After a violent response from his father, Herevia says, he ran away.
“My aunt and uncle took me in. I did my own thing but was a fortunate outlier in that I never took drugs.” LGBTQ youth, faced with social stigma, discrimination, harassment, and violence, are twice to nearly four times as likely to develop substance use disorders than their heterosexual peers.
“I went to conversion therapy,” Herevia said. Sometimes called reparative therapy, the queer-youth positive Trevor Project describes it as “any of several dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“I trained my body and brain to understand self-deprivation as the normal and healthy thing to do. You can imagine how that went: a downhill spiral, the whole thing. But at some point, I said, I just can’t do this anymore, I have to be true to myself. I was 23 or so.”
A man of faith himself, Herevia was working at a Christian college. He spent time with a colleague and his wife who were “black sheep. They didn’t go to church on Sunday which was—aaah!—a heresy. They called the Bible ‘one big story.’ And they’d ask me questions. ‘What does God have to say about being yourself?’ So then I’d have to explore. And I realized that they were trying to push me back to being myself.”
Herevia laughs at a memory of meeting his colleague’s wife for the first time. “She was wearing black leather pants and a black shirt that made her look so slick, especially with these little red pumps. And I said, ‘Those pants are everything!’ And that’s when they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s gay!’’ But, he adds, at the time, still smarting from the pain of coming out and enduring the self-denial of conversion therapy, “I didn’t even know this about myself.”
Seven or so years on, and life is better. Herevia is the Pathway and Inclusion Coordinator for the Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane—an “awesome” job, he says.
“My professional career has been around identity development and creating campus climates that are inclusive for all people,” Herevia said. “My job here is to help underrepresented and underserved students see themselves in medical school.”
Herevia is himself a first-generation college graduate. Back in Fresno, he recalls “being told that I was either too dumb or too poor to be a doctor. That’s where I was from: everybody was told that. So being here and realizing it is actually obtainable—granted, you do have to get through organic chem! My job is to cheer people on.”
Herevia’s professional background includes stints at a couple of Christian colleges, including one in the Spokane area. He describes his work as frustrating, Sisyphean.
“I had to always explain basic equity issues on behalf of students. A policy would be put in place without any consideration for someone with an outlying identity,” Herevia said, putting him in the position of having to “calmly” say, “that’s a great idea, but…” He describes a housing policy allowing students to move if they didn’t want to live with their assigned roommate. What Herevia asked was, “What does that teach them? If someone leaves because their roommate is gay or trans, then that LGBTQ person feels they have no worth. That student is put in a risk-filled situation.”
Tired of endlessly educating administrators about the effects of policy decisions, he took the job at WSU when it was offered. Although WSU has thoughtful policies in place, he says, there is still much work to do “to ensure more representation of LGBTQ concerns and identities in the medical college curriculum. I’m grateful to Bucky McKenzie for his influence and helping make it happen.”
But that doesn’t mean Herevia has given up on opening the minds of people of faith.
“I co-founded a non-profit called Wonderfully Made Spokane. We’re focused on making churches more inclusive for LGBTQ people.” Herevia was motivated to address this issue not only by his own experiences in faith spaces, but by stories others shared with him as well.
He describes meeting a mother at a church he went to whose son, at 15, came out. The boy’s mother went to their pastor who told her, “‘He needs to pray, he needs to do these exercises’—basically a conversion therapy approach.” But the teen became more and more depressed: self-deprivation leads to self-denial and the loss of self. “She started questioning herself: what am I doing to my kid?” Herevia pauses for a moment, then manages to choke out, “Heartbreaking.”
For advocating for her gay son, Herevia continues, the mother got kicked out of her church. “That shifted her into radical gear!” A friend put Herevia and the mother together and, with others, they started Wonderfully Made to “include, support, and celebrate the Spokane LGBTQ community in faith spaces.”
One of the first things Herevia did was to “record a video of my story and share it.” A family friend, the wife of a pastor, messaged him to say, “‘I have always wanted to accept the community, but it has always felt taboo to do so. What do I do?’ It has been so interesting to walk with her on this journey. Conversations are happening in these areas.” People are realizing that “the hate they have held onto for so long is just not worth it. They see the toll it takes on mental health, the suicides, the trauma driving young people away from the church—I think these realizations are helping to change some minds.”
As a result of starting those conversations, Wonderfully Made has partnered with several local and regional health organizations to collect data with the “goal of capturing the wide range of experiences in Spokane and giving space for the data to lead our efforts going forward.” This, Herevia says, is an important and powerful step towards not only making faith spaces more inclusive but towards keeping young people alive and healthy.
Herevia understands the power of story to change minds and win hearts, so he’s deeply involved in Spokane Pride, too. We know ourselves through the eyes of others, so it’s critical for people to feel a sense of community and to know that their identities are cherished and celebrated.
New in town, he volunteered to be a gofer at the 2018 Pride and Rainbow Festival but then, due to a last-minute accident, found himself in charge. A natural leader with enthusiasm to spare, Herevia quickly became a key organizer of Pride—and not just in Spokane. He’s recently been elected a vice president of the U.S. Association of Prides representing Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Alaska, Wyoming, and Montana. “I will also be serving on the InterPride Board of Directors as a Regional Director representing the same region at the international level and focusing on global pride efforts.”
For 2020, the pandemic has forced a redesign of Pride celebrations. “We’ve transitioned to an online platform,” Herevia said. “However, with the recent deaths of Tony McDade, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery” and others, “we are working with our local organizations to develop content that affirms the lives of Black LGBTQ+ people in order for their voices to be heard and honored and developing fundraisers to benefit our local NAACP.”
The work of coming out never really ends but the more we talk and share our stories, the less threatening our differences become. “One of my prayers is always, Help make this work heal. The places where we are hurt the most are also potentially the places where we can heal the most. So, thinking about Pride, I know a lot of people experience a lot of hurt and don’t have an opportunity to express themselves, especially here in Spokane.”
Herevia admits his life has been hard, but he’s grown, too. While some at WSU may know Esteban by the anglicized form of his name, Steven, Herevia is now embracing his ethnic identity. “This is the first time I’m going by my legal name,” he said.
It’s an act of empathy for his own story and “being a more active ally: I think the biggest thing I encourage people to do is to listen. Listen to the stories, sit with them. Matthew Shephard’s story is very real and is still influencing us today, even 30 years after his murder. Pulse. AIDS. These are a part of us and things like this are still likely to happen. These stories aren’t anomalies.”
Herevia is a champion of “encouraging people to listen to these stories, to hold them with dignity—and then to act on them. That’s what’s important.”
This story was written by a volunteer member of the Washington State University President’s Commission for Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation. Composed of members from the entire WSU system, the Commission seeks to raise awareness of the needs and concerns shared by the LGBTQ+ community.