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SGV Connect 112 Interview : Nathan Allen

Chris Greenspon (CG): So we're at Underdog Bookstore in downtown Monrovia with: 

Nathan Allen (NA): Nathan Allen. 

CG: Nathan, who are you?

Yeah. So I actually came from the education space. I was a teacher for a long time, and an after-school educator and I really became passionate about supporting kids in general. So my husband and I decided to open a bookstore. And largely because the way that kids need to be supported was by community as a whole. And when we moved to Monrovia, we noticed those a lack of a bookstore. And we decided that as we were deciding to grow a family here, you have our own kids, that this was a community that needed a safe space, and that needed a space that continue to educate people about the concerns of the LGBT community as well as diverse populations. So we opened Underdog Bookstore, which targets specifically books by and about authors of color, as well as LGBT authors, who we consider underdogs, as well as local vendors.

CG: Before we go any further, just a little bit more about yourself, and you know, how you find yourself particularly passionate about doing a "underdog" bookstore?

Yeah, so I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. I am a third generation Pasadenan actually grew up in the house that my mom grew up in. And I grew up in a largely religious community in East Pasadena, I was part of all the church communities, all the choirs everything, I went away for college and came back. And every time I came back, I was less and less welcome in those communities as I started to explore my own identity. When I became queer, my support in these communities changed drastically. In fact, I have very little contact with people that I grew up with, largely because of that queer identity. So I really kind of became passionate and an advocate to everyone around me, too, as a part to kind of re-enter that community, but more so to encourage others who are in the same state of deconstruction and trying to lead that community. And that really became a passion of mine.

CG: So what's your philosophy as a -- you know, let's face it -- this whole back chunk of the store is a kid's bookstore, and there's been so much BS made about what to tell kids about the reality of sexuality and gender expression. Do you find that you have a coherent philosophy on that?

I mean, that's a great question. I always like to say that we sell books to parents, not to kids, even though we have kids' books. But the reality is that kids are confronted with these issues of gender and sexuality constantly. They see their parents, if they're a straight couple, they see the parents having relationship, may even see the parents have a sexual relationship. They see people around them, they see their teachers who are talking about their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. And as far as gender goes, they are constantly being exposed to gender ideas. Pink is for girls, blue is for boys. Boys play sports, girls have tea parties. So gender and sexuality is something that kids are exposed to constantly. We present books from all perspectives. Of course, we have books, where there are straight parents as well as queer parents. We have books specifically about the transgender community, we have a book called, "He's My Mom," which is about a transgender mom, because we really want to make sure that kids from all walks of life can find something that represents their family in our store, because that's what's going to be the most meaningful literature to them.

CG: So with that said, What's your upcoming programming for Pride Month? We've already begun some of that programming. But what do you want to highlight, from the joyous to the serious?

NA: Yeah, absolutely. On June 16, at 6:30pm, we're having a romance panel. This is a great event specifically for adults. We have three great romance writers coming, including Courtney Kay and Bridget Morrissey. The kids side we have a drag king storytime. Drag queens get a lot of attention. But drag kings are essentially the opposite. There are women dressing up in men's clothing. And we also should have some doggies, some foster dogs here for a little kids cuddle. On the more political side. We have a letter writing event on June 21, from five to 9pm. We have a letter writing event where we will have a local group here writing letters to legislators about anti LGBT laws coming up. 

And who are you trying to reach? 

NA: Yeah, we're trying to reach all levels. So you'll see some local representatives like Judy Chu. You'll also see some state senators. There's a bill in California right now that basically requires schools to out trans kids to their parents within two weeks. And that's within California. There are also going to be some national level ones. So there'll be some senators and representatives as well as of course, the President, just encouraging them to consider or voting in favor of the LGBT community. In fact, there are so far over 500 Anti LGBT laws that have been introduced just in 2023. And a lot of them are just slipping under the radar. So this letter writing campaign really can't target a specific law because there are so many that are being passed across the country. So we try to hit all levels at that letter writing event.

CG: So, real quick, there's a lot of criticism of the commodification of pride. And what I want to talk about is for those who don't know, what's the root, and what's the need for pride? You can obviously tie this to the present moment, but you can also give people historical context.

NA: Yes, so pride really traces its roots, I believe, all the way back to Stonewall, which was a uprising against police violence  outside of Stonewall, which was a gay bar, and it was a revolt largely led by queer people of color. Since then pride has really become an emblem, where we face so much shame by the community. And we face so much hatred, that this is really our opportunity to step forward and say, we're here, we are a community. And it's really a rallying point for many this year at pride has become, and will likely become, increasingly more violent. Not from the gay side, from people who are against LGBT people. And so pride is really becoming a place of rebellion from the gay side to say, "Hey, you cannot force this out of these spaces. These don't say gay bills are not appropriate. Because we're already in these spaces, you cannot just write us out," as well as really kind of target -- and that sounds aggressive -- but really kind of saying to everyone that we have the support now that over 50% of Americans are in support of LGBT community, more than are in support of the trans community. And it's important for us to step forward and say that we are now the majority.

CG: So here in the San Gabriel Valley, the area's kind of generally known as a slow, quiet place, which isn't necessarily a good thing, isn't necessarily a bad thing. But what do you see as the needs of San Gabriel Valley queer and gay people? What are the needs that can be addressed from elected leaders? And what are the needs that could be addressed from a grassroots level? What are the things that aren't happening are slowly happening? What do people need here?

NA: Yeah, so in the San Gabriel Valley, we have a lot of allyship, so people supporting the LGBT community, but a lot of it is performative. There's not a lot that people are actually doing -- like make sure you're shopping at queer bookstores. And you said that it was kind of a more quiet community, but that is not what the gay community is seeing right now. All Saints Church in Pasadena a couple of weeks ago had bomb and gun threats about their pro LGBT stance. We have had bomb and gun and violent threats at our store. Octavia's Bookshelf, which is a store that supports people of color, and Pasadena, they have had break ins and violence promoted against them as well. The San Gabriel Valley is not a safe spot right now for queer people. And that is something that needs to come to City Council attention, police attention. In fact, the City Council wasn't even aware of the violence against our store, despite making police statements until it was brought forward to them by members of the community. So it's really important to stay updated on what's happening, and to be informing your officials, people in these positions of power, that there is an increased need for safety. And whether that's, you know, there needs to be a sheriff that drives by a couple times a night at queer spaces, or whether that means that there has to be someone that goes up and knocks on the door of somebody that has a Don't Tread On Me flag outside of their house, which is, of course a Confederate symbol. These are things that need to be happening by our neighbors, and not just "we support gay people" and then walking on passing by. For our store, honestly, this sounds capitalist, but by a book, we've had so many people come in and say, "Oh, we're so sorry, this has happened to you." but we don't see them again. We see them here for that apology, and that's it. And we're not here to say "Thank you, your support means a lot to us," because the support that they're giving is largely verbal at this point.

CG: So this may be gauche, but just to round out some of that bad taste. Are there other places spaces or figures around the SGV you want to shout out in light of Pride Month? 

NA: Yeah, I'm happy to shout out All Saints Church and Pasadena. They're doing an amazing job including all communities. Obviously, I don't support any religion out of this bookstore, largely to support my own community. But if you're looking for another religious other than All Saints, there is Neighborhood Universalist Unitarian Church which also is doing great work. If you're looking for a non religious organization, there is a San Gabriel Valley LGBTQ Center, which is also doing excellent work as well throughout the valley.

CG: And lastly, if people only catch one event at this store's pride month programming, which by the time we publish, sometime next week, would mean it would need to be after next week, which would you recommend?

NA: Yeah, come to the letter writing. It's June 21. That should be after this is out. You don't have to write letters to all representatives. You can take five minutes to write literally a postcard that someone else will put a stamp on and send for you. It's really important. Last time, I think we had over 100 letters sent on this event and that was before we opened. We're expecting that to be much larger this time. And our voice matters. And this is the way to help ensure that our voice matters. 

CG: Nathan, thanks for coming on SGV Connect.

NA: Thank you so much for coming. Yes.