The murals will honor LGBTQ+ activists of Long Beach’s past in nine installations around the city

Nine rainbow-themed murals will soon teach residents about local LGBTQ history and activists of the past. 

The Arts Council LB (ArtsLB) and Elders Rising are partnering to honor LGBTQ elders who took risks and broke barriers in their fight for equality in a new project called “Rainbow Heroes.” The murals will be scattered across the nine districts in Long Beach, each one highlighting the life and story of a unique LGBTQ activist and elder. 

The project has been in the works for the past eight years, said Zoe Nicholson, executive director of Elders Rising and longtime activist. Elders Rising is a Long Beach-based nonprofit that helps uplift and support LGBTQ seniors.

Nicholson said she’s considered herself an activist since she was 8 years old—against the Vietnam War, fighting for gay rights, women’s rights and more. In 1982 she and six other women fasted for 37 days to convince legislators to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. 

At almost 75 years old, Nicholson said the older she gets, the more important it becomes to keep stories from the past alive for the next generation of queer people. 

Zoe Nicholson leads the suffragists across Ocean Blvd. to drop her ballot into the ballot drop box located at Long Beach City Hall on Aug. 26, 2021, to celebrate the 101st anniversary of the 19th Amendment. (Richard H. Grant | Signal Tribune)

“The primary bolt of lightning that struck me when I turned 65 is that my friends were dying, and one by one, so were their stories,” Nicholson said. “I wanted to do all I could to harvest, elevate and illuminate them and how brave they were.”

Nicholson, who has written three books covering LGBTQ history, said she began to notice the gay rights movement was becoming a “young person’s movement.” But that only pushed her more to honor the people that came before and “lift the invisible people from being lost forever.”

The first of nine “Rainbow Heroes” has been announced as Dr. Angela Bowen, a Black lesbian ballerina in the ‘90s and former Cal State Long Beach professor. Bowen was a prominent gay rights activist, served on the board of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays and was the first Black woman to join CSULB’s women’s studies department. 

Dr. Angela Bowen, a queer rights activist, dancer and professor will be the first of nine LGBTQ leaders honored in the ‘Rainbow Heroes’ mural project. (Courtesy of Arts LB)

Since Bowen lived in the first district in Long Beach, a portrait of her under a rainbow will adorn a wall in the neighborhood. A couple of feet from her portrait, another rainbow will be painted where someone can stand underneath it and take a picture with a Rainbow Hero. 

Nicholson said they’re hoping to unveil the first of nine murals on October 11, National Coming Out Day. 

Bowen was chosen by a committee of LGBTQ leaders in the community, but the other eight activists will come from public nominations, which can be submitted online. Residents can also nominate a wall, or specific location where they think a mural should be placed. 

A short biography of each activist will be written in between the rainbows, along with a QR code so residents can read a more in-depth history of the person. 

“I could stand on the left and get my picture taken with somebody who paved the path for me to make my life better,” Nicholson said. “I wanted to harvest the stories of who the elders were in my city and what they had to do to be public and how hard it was to accomplish that and the hardships they faced.”

Griselda Suarez, executive director of ArtsLB, has been working with Elders Rising for the past eight years on the Rainbow Heroes project. ArtsLB will be in charge of commissioning artists to paint the murals. 

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia speaks with local women’s rights activist Zoe Nicholson during the first Disability Pride Rally that was held at Harvey Milk Promenade Park on July 26, 2022. (Richard H. Grant | Signal Tribune)

Suarez said the Arts Council has been wanting to partner on an LGBTQ-themed project that falls in line with their mission of inclusivity and diversity. 

“I’m a queer woman and I highly respect my queer elders,” Suarez said. “Many of them have influenced how I work and what I do for work.”

The Arts Council and Elders Rising had been trying to get funding for the project when former president Donald Trump came into office, which the two said put a halt on the Rainbow Heroes project. 

Nicholson and Suarez both recalled that during the Trump administration, they began seeing more of a need to highlight and protect the LGBTQ community. 

“We were seeing that we needed to uplift the stories of many people and teach people the history of not only Long Beach and their activists, but their impact on the entire country,” Suarez said. 

With help from the California Arts Council, they’ve now raised $30,000 towards the project, but Suarez estimates they’ll need about $100,000 total. 

Residents can submit suggestions for activists and mural locations on the Arts Council website. At this time, there is no deadline for submissions