Pandemic Check In: An Exclusive Interview with Chelsea Rose, Vice-Chair of Positive Images

www.gaysonoma.com’s Gary Carnivele recently interviewed through email Chelsea Rose who is Vice-Chair on the Board of Directors at Positive Images in an effort to check in with representatives of local LGBTQ+ non-profits, Queer Luminaries, business owners, and more. This is the first of a series of interviews that he will conduct each week during our Stay at Home order.

Gary Carnivele: Talk a bit about your background, how you came to be involved with Positive Images, what your position there is, and what it entails.

Chelsea Rose: I am currently the Vice-Chair on the Board of Directors at Positive Images (PI). When I moved to Sonoma County (eight days before the 2017 fires), I already knew the area well because I’d been working in PR and marketing for wine and tourism clients here. What I lacked locally was LGBTQIA+ community, so I started learning about different organizations. Within a few months, I became connected to Positive Images’ Thursday night youth group as an adult volunteer. It was powerful to witness the peer support structure of the group, where youth and young adults ages 12-24 come up with most elements of the programming and facilitate the evenings. I never had a group like this to help me navigate my own queer identity. Like me, I heard other adults over 24 express a similar desire for a peer support space. In October 2018, PI’s Director of Programs Jessica Carroll and I developed and began facilitating a Friday night group for adults. 

Positive Images currently has just 1.75 full-time employees — Jessica Carroll and Outreach Coordinator Max Anderson. PI doesn’t have an Executive Director. We are working toward raising enough money to hire someone to fill this role, but for now, the Board of Directors (all volunteers) work to fill those shoes, bringing our various expertise and interests to our respective roles. In addition to co-facilitating the Friday night group, I bring to the organization my PR and marketing experience and event-planning experience. I collaborate with Jessica and fellow Board members to write grants and develop new programs. 

GC: How are you and your family doing during this pandemic?

CR: Gosh, what a question. Overall, I’ve been okay, but I’ve had some really tough days. My family mostly lives in southern California and my girlfriend Lucy lives in Oakland. Usually, I visit my family every two or three months and I spend about two days a week with Lucy and our cat Paprika (who lives with her full-time, but is nonetheless also my baby). Lucy takes an immunosuppressant, so I spent more than two weeks in isolation before I felt safe to come see her. I’m writing from Oakland with Paprika in my lap, so things are on the up-and-up now. Everyone’s physical health is good, so far. 

In 2013, I hosted a weekly online literary reading that streamed on YouTube via Google Hangouts, with guests from all over the U.S. and occasionally international. I also do a lot of work from home already. In these senses, adjusting to shelter-in-place has come somewhat easily to me. I’m trying to shift my activism online as much as possible, grateful for the webinars and teach-ins that bring so many thinkers into one digital space I can tune into from home. There are also a lot of SF drag performers who have shifted their performances to streaming platforms and they’ve been totally lifting my mood with their brilliance. 

GC: How is Positive Images continuing to serve its clients?

CR: We made a rapid shift to Zoom for all of our in-person programs. We held our last in-person meeting at Positive Images’ Community Center on Friday, March 13, and moved our Social Saturday to Zoom the very next day. Under normal circumstances, PI’s LGBTQIA Community Center is open for drop-in hours Tuesday through Friday. We have Art Jams (for ages 12-24) on Wednesday afternoons from 3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m., Youth Group (ages 12-24) on Thursdays from 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m., and Adult Group on Friday nights from 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.  The youth leadership team is continuing to meet online and will resume facilitation of the group online.

We are all in contact, digitally, and have moved the leadership program online, too. We are now offering Art Jams, Youth Group and Adult Group online via Zoom, plus an online hangout hour for all ages from 1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. To the extent that we can, the groups follow the same format they would in person. Our community agreements and rituals (guided breathing exercises to ground us at the beginning and end of meetings, introductions and check-ins) remain the same. We’ve gotten creative with how our social nights work. We’ve played Mad Libs together, created at-home scavenger hunts, and other games that can happen online from remote locations.

So far, groups have been smaller than they were in person, but they’re still really vital. We saw at least 30 different people in our first ten days. 

GC: Not all young LGBTQ+ people live in situations that are ideal and/or understanding of their gender identity, sexuality. etc.  How is PI helping young folks who are finding themselves in such situations?

CR: I want to acknowledge that some people do not have safe access to Internet or phones right now. Some people in our community do not have access to shelter. Ultimately, we are aware that there are limitations to our reach and the problems we are able to address. Shelter-in-place orders will limit access to resources for some of our community members. Because this interview is appearing online, most of my answers address folks who do have at least some access to phone and internet.

P.I. is a welcoming, affirming space for LGBTQIA+ folks to explore and celebrate their gender, sexual orientation, and other facets of identity. Our mission is to provide support and nurture positive self-image in our community and empower folks to participate in building a just and equitable society. We receive countless testimonials from people–older alums and present participants–who say that PI’s support has saved their lives. On a community needs assessment we created in 2019, folks responded anonymously. Nine different people said Positive Images gave them family. Other answers that stick out in my mind about what people receive from PI included unconditional respectlovecommunitysafe space.

Today, about 60% of PI’s participants are transgender and about 60% of trans folks at PI are nonbinary. There are still a lot of challenges and lack of acceptance in the world for LGBTQIA+ people, and it can be particularly difficult for trans people, who sometimes aren’t accepted even by LGBQ cisgender people. 

In addition to our support groups, Positive Images’ Center has a Transformation Station, which is a closet of free clothing and gender-affirming garments like chest binders. We have a library of books and zines. We provide referrals and field lots of calls from parents and other family members who want to know how to best support their queer and trans kids. Our center is also used by community groups as a meeting space, so TGNB, FTM Sonoma County and PFLAG Santa Rosa all hold their meetings at PI. 
All this being said, the physical meeting space isn’t available to people during shelter-in-place. People can still call us we will provide information and referrals. As soon as it’s safe to re-open, we will resume operations at the Center.

While we love hearing from supportive families, we are aware that not everyone is safe and supported at home. This is always a concern, and it’s certainly exacerbated when something like COVID19 suddenly has us all stuck at home. We do our best to be in touch (digitally) with all of our young participants and to ensure that they have as many avenues as possible to stay connected to one another. Right now, people connect with us during our online support groups and through various social media channels. 

GC: What tips can you offer young people who may find themselves in this situation?

CR: During this shelter-in-place, it is extra important to know that you’re not alone and that your support networks aren’t going to go away. If you’ve never had a support network, now could be a time to seek out something like PI’s groups and see if they’re a good fit for you. I understand that not everyone will feel safe connecting to us from home — if you don’t, can you go for a walk to call in? Or if being on a call/video isn’t an option, is it comfortable and safe to text or chat (typing) with friends or folks who can offer support? 

It’s an interesting circumstance we are all in. Making the transition to online meetings may be hard for some people who are used to connecting in person. For many others, doing things online is actually easier, whether that’s because of something like social anxiety or certain types of physical disability. 

National Center for Transgender Equality created and regularly updates an excellent website of information and resources about Coronavirus/COVID19 specifically for trans people: https://transequality.org/covid19

GC: Suicide rates are much higher among younger LGBTQ+.  What is PI doing to assist those who may be at riskand again what advice would you offer those who are experiencing depression during this Stay-at-Home order?

CR: We know that LGBTQIA+ young people–and especially trans folks–are at higher risk for suicide attempts. We also know that when LGBTQIA+ people are supported in their identities, mental health rates match the general population. I’d say that everything Positive Images does seeks to reduce the risk of suicide in our community. When we provide cultural sensitivity trainings about our community (to schools, government agencies, businesses, etc.), we are working to reduce stigma and enhance understanding and acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people. All of our groups–whether directly focused on support or more social in nature–are about connecting people to community support. We have a wonderful LMFT with whom we contract to be present at our Thursday night meetings, and some of our staff and adult volunteers have suicide prevention training. Before the shelter-in-place order, a speaker from Buckelew was scheduled to present about suicide prevention to our youth group, however, this meeting has been postponed until we can meet in person. 

PI will continue to provide online connectivity throughout the shelter-in-place. All of our meetings begin with asking folks to rate how they’re doing physically on a scale of one-to-10 and internally or emotionally on that same scale. We call these numbers your PI levels. Even if you can’t make it to a Zoom meeting, anyone who thinks it might be a useful tool should feel free to keep track of their PI levels as they fluctuate throughout the day. Not everyone likes numbers, so another option is to write a single sentence or a few words describing your physical and internal states. 

Is the PI office open at all, perhaps for emergency situations?
During this particular crisis, we believe the safest thing we can do is to stay at home and keep our physical center closed to the public. 

Have PI group leaders been reaching out to group participants and if so, what I they hearing about their time a home, away from support groups, and being kept from work/scholl/friends?

Yes, we are keeping connected to folks.  Normally, we have a youth leadership team (of roughly eight people) who normally meets twice weekly to plan, facilitate and debrief our in-person Thursday night meetings. During shelter-in-place, facilitation has shifted to our staff and adult leaders, however, we are all in contact, digitally. Anything specifically said during our meetings is confidential.  

GC: I would imagine donations and even funding will or may be impacted.  What can our readers do to help Positive Images continue to provide services and support to LGBTQ+ youth?

CR: Absolutely, it will be a tough year for us. Though our reach is pretty tremendous, we’re a small nonprofit organization with a small budget to begin with. If anyone who is resourced right now wishes to support our work, they can do so by visiting https://posimages.org/donate/
If your birthday is coming up, consider asking loved ones on social media for donations to PI as a gift. 

Money isn’t the only way to support our work! If you or someone you know might benefit from our services, check us out and tell the people in your life about us. It’s also amazing to hear from alumni about their experiences at PI. One of the side-effects of being a 30-year-old organization is that our current Board doesn’t have up-to-date contact information for a lot of past participants in our programs. Most people didn’t even have email accounts for the first seven or eight years of our existence. If PI impacted your life, we would love to reconnect. Write to us at info@posimages.org

This is our 30th Anniversary year. If shelter-in-place is lifted in time, we will be having a celebration and fundraiser gala at DeTurk Round Barn on Saturday, August 29. Likewise, we’re also the beneficiaries of Pink Saturday Sunday, a rosé-themed party created by Out in the Vineyard that’s been rescheduled for Sunday, September 13th. Save the dates! 

GC: What are you personally focused on as a PI Board Member right now?

CR: I’m on the planning committee for our 30th-anniversary celebration. Orlando O’Shea and I are also on a Board recruitment subcommittee. We recently welcomed Alisse Cottle, co-owner of Brew to our Board, who is a wonderful addition. I had a few upcoming speaking engagements scheduled in April, but those have been postponed, of course. I’m still facilitating our Adult Group on Fridays.

GC: I know you are a very busy woman, so what else are you working on now?

CR: A lot of my work is up-in-the-air right now. My biggest project this year was supposed to be creating and producing Father’s Gay, a queer music festival slated for Saturday, June 20, presented by the Arlene Francis Center. The first Father’s Gay was at a bar and on Father’s Day itself, so I was thrilled to move the event to the Saturday before, to have two stages this time, and to move it to an all-ages venue. My lineup–not even announced publically yet–is a dream. 

Most of my paid work is as a writer. I contribute to the North Bay Bohemian, the Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine’s website. As a copywriter, I do branding, social media marketing, and public relations. I was recently a recipient of Creative Sonoma’s Discovered Award for Emerging Literary Artists and got to teach community workshops on poetry at the Museum of Sonoma County.

For now, I’ve been working on creating online spaces for literary events, developing some teaching materials, and organizing my physical space.