What started as a way to help his son has become a way to help sons and daughters across Modesto.
Modesto resident Ed Plata and his wife, Elizabeth, started The Place seven years ago. The support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth and their allies was created as a safe place for them to share their stories and be themselves.
Still 50-year-old Plata, a former Marine who owns the general and electrical contracting business Fidelis Construction, said he wasn’t always as supportive of gay rights. It was his son, who came out as gay and is now an alum of The Place, that helped him change his views.
“Where I was raised, I was in the Marine Corps and my dad was in the Marine Corps, being gay was absolutely not OK with me,” he said. “I hadn’t been involved in any kind of LGBT issues. I had a little problem with it at first. But I said, ‘What’s more important? My son’s life or my hangups?’ Now I can’t even tell you how much I love these kids. And I have so many good gay friends. I’ve realized they’re just like me. There are so many things we have in common more than sexuality.”
The nonreligious support group is open to youths ages 14 to 20 and meets the second and fourth Thursdays of each month at Modesto’s College Avenue United Church of Christ. About a year ago they began holding an adult support group as well. Some 25 to 35 youth come to meetings, with as many as 100 coming to various special events held throughout the year.
The couple runs the program with the help of volunteers and group leaders Joe Sismore and Alvaro Juarez.
The Platas journey from parents of a gay son to community advocates for all LGBT youth continues this Saturday at the MoPRIDE in the Park celebration. The LGBT pride event runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Graceada Place and will include a Teen Garden area run by The Place.
We started because our son came out as an LGBT young man. So we wanted to find a support group to go to for youth. We did a bunch of research. The statistics we read on LGBT youth – on substance abuse and suicide – were very, very scary. There was a lot of stuff out there for youth, but it was all in L.A. or San Francisco. So my wife said, “Let’s start something here.” I said yeah, let’s do it.
When we first started, it just provided a place for youth to come and socialize. So they could be there and be who they were without being teased, feeling threatened or being told they weren’t normal. That was what our first experience was. What it turned into was a leadership group. We train our kids to run the group. We have a small group of kids who will take leadership, they come up the ranks. They take leadership and help facilitate the meetings.
Fortunately, I definitely see more acceptance. There is more acceptance and more self-confidence in these young people now. It is more acceptable and is out in the open. We have had kids join the Navy, the Air Force, going to Berkeley, all kinds of things. We’re not taking the credit for that. We’re just proud they can go out there and do that. We teach them you are just as good as anybody else, to go ahead and walk tall.
Bullying is big. One of the other things we see is that there are still a lot of community leaders – police officers, leadership, teachers, administrators, even some physicians – that do not know how to deal with LGBT people. Sometimes they become uncomfortable and would rather ignore it and walk away from it. One of our goals is to provide leadership training to police officers, teachers, leaders, talking to them about LGBT issues.
It’s the perfect fit for us. That’s what we’re about. We want new kids to see there’s a place for them. Suicide is still prevalent in the LGBT community, especially in youth. Even in the best families, there’s still a fear they won’t be accepted. We had a kid come knock on our door at 2 in the morning because his dad beat them up. The Teen Garden is meant to be a relaxing place with information. We’re going to have a carpet on the lawn with couches and chairs. We just want to get out there and show the community we are there and to help them any way we can. It’s our community.