Thursday, February 14, 2013
Max Disposti oozes boyish charm, right down to his robust, Italian accent. Meet him and you’re immediately caught up in his genuine enthusiasm and zeal for all he’s been able to accomplish here, in San Diego.
For Disposti, his achievement amounts to having created a center for the LGBT community in North County, the first of its kind for the area. A place where LGBT people can get answers, support and feel safe. More importantly, a place where they can go and be accepted. In other words, a second home for them and their families.
“After a few years living here as an openly gay man, I found it impossible to believe that with 800,000 people in this geographic area, there was nothing for us,” he explains. “Not a place to go and have fun, and not a resource center that could address LGBT-related issues. I met people who were desperate for a place to go, to find support and get their questions answered. It’s important to have a place here that is LGBT friendly.”
In 2008, Disposti established the North County LGBT Coalition, a non-profit organization that soon began increasing visibility for LGBT in North County, and building the groundwork for the Resource Center. Then, in December, 2011, he founded the North County LGBT Resource Center, taking the helm as Executive Director. Located in a space along the North Coast Highway in Oceanside, the Center is barely 1,000 square feet in size.
“In our first year, we put 100 volunteers to work,” Disposti boasts. “We created about 15 different support and discussion groups that meet every week—for women, men, transgender, students, youth and elderly. Every month, we check in to the center about 800 people. They come for reading material, resources, and they come for services, like our mental health program.”
There are two doctors who offer their time and mental health expertise at no cost, every Friday, from noon to however long it takes. “Sometimes they’re here until 7 p.m.,” he observes. “People come and share their personal stories. Maybe they’ve been abused before and their self-esteem is not where it should be because they’ve been discriminated against. The mental health program does all it can to help them.“
With Camp Pendleton nearby, it’s easy to wonder just how accepting is the military base about having the LGBT Resource Center in its backyard. “There are a lot of active military men and women who use our services,” Disposti notes. “However, most come because they have issues related to their service, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They come because their families don’t accept them. Camp Pendleton doesn’t officially recognize the Center in its community, though they know we are here. Besides our attempts to create an official relationship, nobody has come forward to confirm that. I’d like to see a relationship with Camp Pendleton, where they can refer people to us. Or maybe, we can train them as to how to deal with issues of sexual orientation and identity.”
For the first year of operation, everyone working at the center has been helping out strictly on a volunteer basis. But that is no longer the case, as Disposti explains.
“We were finally able to hire one person. Her name is Linda Johnson and she’s supposed to work five hours a day but sometimes she’s here a lot longer. They’re all committed people, each person who’s here.”
Disposti, who became an American citizen in 2007, was born and raised in Rome, Italy, where he says, “we were all affected by this cloud of the Catholic Church and the way of life. You grew up in an environment where that’s the only religion you have in the world, and the Pope is above everything.”
His parents, however, were of a different mindset. “I was baptized but my parents allowed me to make my own decisions about religion when I turned 18. I was fortunate enough to live in a family that was very open when it comes to advancing other beliefs, so it was never really forced on me.”
At 15, Disposti came out to his parents. “They were concerned about my safety, afraid I’d be picked on. But soon they realized that wasn’t going to be an issue. My parents really planted a seed about caring for others. Made me care about the community, and filled me with concern about people that couldn’t make it on their own.”
Having such compassionate parents gave Disposti a sense that he was spoiled. “Here I was, my family accepted me as a gay man. I felt privileged, believe it or not, especially knowing that I have a lot of friends who, at 45, still can’t come out, and feel guilty because they can never be themselves to their parents.”
In 1998, Disposti came to California with one goal—to make a difference—but he ended up living in San Francisco, becoming complacent, working in the hotel industry and then as a realtor. It wasn’t until his mother called one day, and started asking him questions about his life choices, that he realized he needed to make a change.
“I kind of lost myself, to be honest, and it was that conversation with my mother that brought me back. She’d always ask me, so how many books have you read last month? But, I didn’t have time, I was learning English everyday, working in a hotel, and applying for a real estate license. I was selling homes and making good money. I felt disoriented, for this was not the reason I came here. I came to make a difference.”
So he moved to San Diego, and soon the idea for the North County LGBT Resource Center was born. And now, after a year in operation, the Center’s biggest challenge seems to be funding.
“We are small, but the destiny of the center now is to grow,” he says. “We’re hoping someone will come forward to support it because, at a certain point, you have to have money. We do enough to keep the place open, to run the programs, but, besides Linda, we can’t afford to pay anyone else. As executive director, I volunteer. I’m not a wealthy man so sooner or later I’m going to have to make a decision.”
The North County LGBTQ Resource Center, located at 510 North Coast Highway in Oceanside, is open from noon to 8 p.m., weekdays, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday. It is closed Sundays. For more information, visit ncresourcecenter.org or call (760) 994-1690.
In the meantime, Disposti, who is always involved in numerous other activities, including volunteering for homeless programs and serving on the boards for the Oceanside Mainstreet Association and the Advancing Compassion Project, was recently honored with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Award by the North San Diego County NAACP.
“I don’t know what motivates me to do this,” he says. “I just wake up in the morning and feel like I need to do it. Maybe it’s the bee pollen I take every morning. Doing what I do makes me alive, and happy. Sometimes you’re exposed to so much poverty and tragedy, but I’m happy to be here when I can.”