Gary Costa thought his work in the LGBT community was on hold.
After working as program director at The Center Orange County and as executive director of Being Alive in Los Angeles, Costa moved away from the LGBT community to become associate director for Dartmouth College in charge of coordinating major gifts and pledges for a $1.5 billion capital campaign.
“I missed it,” Costa said of the LGBT work. “It was always a dream. While I was working for the Ivy League, I thought it would be a great thing to do as a volunteer when I retired. I knew in my heart I wanted to get back into this arena.”
When the Palm Springs resident's decade-long position with Dartmouth was eliminated after the project’s run, Costa returned to non-profits as resource coordinator for the Coachella Valley Autism Society when the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs advertised for an assistant to the executive director.
Within six months, he was named interim executive director of the LGBT Center in November 2013 when his boss left for a new job.
“My original goal was to work under him, learn the ropes and poise myself to take over as executive director,” Costa said, smiling. “It was a much faster process than I thought it would be.”
Costa was recently hired as executive director, and looks forward to taking the Center from its senior-only roots to a full-fledged resource center for the LGBT community. He recently sat down with Palm Springs Life to explain more about that transition, finding a new home for the Center and how his personal life has impacted his career choice.
You talk about the Center being more inclusive than it currently is. What does that mean?
“In my 10 years living here I felt there needed to be an alternative to what most people came here to do, which was go to the gay bars or hang out at one of the gay resorts. What about the rest of us? I always in my mind felt there needed to be a community center where people can network, connect, and engage in social activities. My job is to help this organization take that next step. The majority of our funding goes toward mental health counseling and our Food Bank. There is a large population of gay men and women here who don’t need the mental health aspect or the Food Bank, so we need to expand our vision on what we can be to the rest of the community. I want this to be a true community center. To be a resource house for everything. That’s what a true community center should be and needs to be, and that’s where we want to take this organization.”
How do you make that transition and still maintain the roots of the organization, which was serving the gay senior population?
“There was concern from the people who had been here from the beginning that we might lose our focus and forget our roots and history. These are a dedicated group of people who want to see the center thrive and continue, and they are very protective. They wanted to make sure we didn’t broaden our scope too much and marginalize them. That passion was great to see. I’ve done everything I can to work with the core membership that have been here from Day 1 to assure them that we can continue to grow and be more inclusive of our entire community without marginalizing them. Our programming is still strong for the senior community, and we have been able to branch off and provide programming for the transgender community, and for the women."
Do you envision the Center’s growth happening in the space you currently occupy, or what opportunities are there to find a new space?
“We are definitely maxed out here. We even have an annex building behind us that we use for our Food Bank on Thursdays. We use our main room for things like yoga classes and medical updates. Now we’re going to use community rooms of other organizations, pairing up with Desert AIDS Project and the Mizell Senior Center. This particular building is limited in size and doesn’t seem as inviting from the outside. I think people who are hesitant to come in here because it looks pretty nondescript. The previous tenants here were the Desert Pride Center, and it had a bad reputation in town, so there is an association because of that. We are looking ahead and working with a donor who has a building for us to obtain in the future. If that is indeed the case, that would allow us to expand and be a true community center. We are thankful we do have this current space, but looking to the future we know we’ve outgrown it.”
Is this a good time in your life to be in this position?
“It is. I have a long-term partner who lives in Las Vegas. It was hard for him to find a job here, too. It’s still close enough that we can spend weekends together, and I have a Lot of friends here in the community who moved here from Los Angeles or San Francisco.”
Was Palm Springs on your radar to live?
“I’m originally from Hanford, near Fresno. I come from a very Portuguese community. In the summer, our family and relatives would go to Pismo Beach and we used to call it Portuguese Palm Springs. I didn’t know anything about Palm Springs, but then I started watching episodes of “I Love Lucy” and I found out Desi and Lucy lived there. I had a cousin who was gay and told me about communities where people could be themselves and walk hand in hand. That was my dream to live in a community where I could be myself. It wasn’t until Sonny Bono was mayor of Palm Springs and seeing stories in the media, I realized that’s where I wanted to be. That’s utopia there. I have owned property here for 10 years. I just never thought I would live this dream so early in my life.”
What happened in your life that made you want to give back to the gay community?
“Living in Orange County I was in retail at the time, and seeing how much homophobia there was and watching friends die of AIDS. I remember being asked to give a talk on AIDS prevention to a group of my co-workers, and just feeling the fear and loathing of gay people. How can we co-exist in this world when there is so much hatred, animosity, so much misinformation and ignorance?
I come from a very large family. I had a brother who was closeted and living with a woman. I felt we should be able to live free and be ourselves. I remember going home on the weekends and I had to pretend I had a girlfriend. I remember high school was just awful for me being bullied. I made a decision in my head, even if it’s just as a volunteer, I’m going to do what I can to help so the next generation knows it’s OK to be gay.
What do you like about working in the a non-profit sector?
"The sense of doing good for the community. I started working for the LGBT community in the 1980s. It was a completely different time. AIDS and HIV was a fairly new epidemic, and we had different priorities. Just seeing the number of people who come through our doors for low-cost counseling and our food bank, seeing the impact on people’s lives is just thrilling. There is a satisfaction that I get that when I go to bed at night, knowing I’m doing my part to help build a better community."