Jeff Myers (at the podium) and Joe Hawkins (left) co-founders of the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, were joined by Oakland city officials at a press event announcing the Lakeshore LGBTQ Cultural District on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

The co-founders of the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, Jeff Myers and Joe Hawkins, joined Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao, several city councilmembers, and other public officials at a press conference on Tuesday to announce the designation of a new cultural district for Oakland’s LGBTQ+ communities. 

The resolution brought forward by councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan, Nikki Fortunato Bas, Dan Kalb, Carroll Fife, and Mayor Thao would create the Lakeshore LGBTQ Cultural District to “uplift the rich history of and cultivate a supportive environment for LGBTQ+ individuals, families, allies, and businesses in Lakeshore, and nurture a safe, vibrant, and welcoming community.”

The resolution was approved by the council’s Life Enrichment Committee on Monday, according to a city press release. The full City Council was expected to vote on the resolution at its regular meeting on Tuesday.

The proposed borders for the new cultural district are Grand Avenue to the west, El Embarcadero to the south, Lakeshore Avenue to the east, and Boulevard Way to the north. 

Writer and Jeopardy! show contestant Amy Schneider served as the emcee at the press event, where she introduced several public officials and members of the LGBTQ+ community coalition.

“I owe this town so much. In particular, I’m grateful that it gave me the space to live with my true self,” Scheider said during her opening remarks.

The LGBTQ+ community has had a visible presence in the Lakeshore neighborhood stretching back to the 1980s when four bars—Bench and Bar, Lake Lounge, Madison and Lancer’s, and Paradise Bar & Grill—dominated the queer scene there. 

Members of the LGBTQ+ community, said Hawkins, don’t always feel as welcome in Oakland’s other districts as they do around the lake. “For those of us who have been living in Oakland for a very long time, natives of Oakland, the Lake Merritt area has always been our home. It’s been the home where most queer people have lived.”

During the announcement, Thao talked about how seeing the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center evolved since her days as a staffer for Councilmember Kaplan. 

“I remember when the center was small and now they’ve expanded,” said Mayor Thao. “It [has come] full circle around Oakland values of what it means to belong.”

The Oakland Gay Men’s Chorus performed at the press event announcing the Lakeshore LGBTQ Cultural District. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

The mayor emphasized the importance not only of the center but also of a cultural district helping to amplify voices within the LQBTQ+ community and reinforcing their sense of safety. 

“We will be there to support you, in all of your glory, in whatever you need to get done to feel safe,” Thao said. “You are what makes Oakland so beautiful. You are what makes Oakland so proud of being who we are. And that truly is our superpower.”

Kaplan, the longest-tenured LGBTQ+-identifying councilmember, said it took decades of work to make the cultural district a reality. 

“We recognize Oakland as a place of liberation, as a place that believes in our slogan ‘love life,’ that we are the love life city, that we uplift one another,” Kaplan said. “That in these days of growing hate throughout the nation, we will be a beacon of love and support and uplift one another.”

Officials said community members will soon be able to access a Lakeshore Cultural District website with information about plans for the district, events, and a map of the district’s proposed boundaries. 

Members of the committee hope that other LGBTQ+ business owners will look into moving to or opening a business in the district. The city will install an LQBTQ+-inclusive flag at the corner of Lakeshore and Lake Park, and a city grant will support the painting of crosswalks in the colors of the rainbow. 

“This is just the beginning,” Hawkins said. “In my mind, the whole lake is the LGBTQ+ cultural district.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.