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EAST LOS ANGELES – As a longtime sports fan, Luis Vasquez felt like he has always had to divide how he felt.

Now, though, that's no longer the case, as the increasingly common intersectionality makes it easier to be many identities.

"You can be a lot of things and still show up to one place," Vasquez said. "I think as a huge Rams fan and football fan, to be able to bring the LGBT community into and have these conversations is powerful. There's a lot of young men that I see that are on the field, but they have to make a choice. And so being able to advocate really for young men that look like me and Black, brown, minority young men, I think it's important and so valuable to be able to have this experience. This sharing was such an important movement."

Helping facilitate that is a big reason why Toups and Luis Vasquez, co-founders of Rainbow Labs, were selected as the Rams' fourth "pLAymaker" honorees and surprised with a $5,000 check from The Los Angeles Rams Foundation earlier this month.

Rainbow Labs has provided a safe and supportive environment to support LGBTQ+ since 2020. It came to life from the impact of the unique challenges faced by queer and gender non-conforming youth Toups and Vasquez dealt with during their own upbringing – the bullying and lack of supportive environments prevented them from connecting with other members of the LGBTQ+ community until much later in life, where they found a safe and supportive space to explore their own identities.

"Luis persevered and continued sport, but I quit sport," Toups said. "I was playing basketball and baseball when I was in middle school, and it just didn't feel a safe, inclusive space growing up in Texas, so I quit and I went to band. But I really enjoyed the the atmosphere of sport, and so the longing for something that actually would create a space for that is something that I've always wanted. So it's really exciting to be named this, because Luis and I are working to create better opportunities for youth, because we know that sport has the power to change kids' lives, we know that it has the power to change LGBTQ kids' lives, we just need to champion it a little bit and really tailor it to these youth who don't feel seen and heard in sport."

Toups and Vasquez over the last two years have been working on a mentoring program that's safe, inclusive and affirming. The aforementioned intersectionality is important, in terms of bringing culture and context together.

"There's a lot of amazing mentoring programs out there, but they're not taking into consideration that if you're Latino or you're Black or from other communities, that (it) can be really hard to be LGBTQ," Toups explained. "And then how does that look like in the mentoring space when you're mentored by someone who looks like you? It's very affirming to show that an adult has a healthy relationship with themselves and a healthy relationship with their community. So we're really excited because this is where we're bridging towards our mission."

Toups said they do a lot of group mentoring, which allows them to have teams. That way, each mentee – ranging in age from 13-18 – gains exposure to multiple different mentors. The content of the curriculum is determined by Rainbow Labs' kids, with those ideas then brought to the organization's youth council to determine if they want to do a storytelling lab or sports, for example.

"I think all those fancy things, but at the end of the day, how do we create a safe space?" Vasquez said. "We went out and did focus groups. We had conversations with community members, specifically East LA, South LA, mid-Wilshire. At the end of the day, kids said two basic things: I want a caring an adult that just sees me for who I am, and then I want to feel safe in a place. And so I think that's what's helping us drive it."

Inspire change has a different meeting to each co-founder.

Vasquez, born and raised in East L.A. and a self-described "knucklehead" who had "very little direction," said he doesn't know how he made it out of high school. He served 12 years in the Navy, then returned home to coach and do other things in sports, and said he was "troubled," being in the closet and not coming out until later in life. At first, he thought he could just keep it to himself and it wouldn't get recognized by others, but is now embracing it.

"Now, I get to redefine masculinity, and I get to redefine what a gay man looks like, the gay Latino male looks like," Vasquez said. "At the end of the day, if I can help just one person view themselves in a different lens, then that's mic-drop for me. If I can do it in a community? Well then that's even better. If I can start a change across different industries? Well then that's really a life work."

For Toups, inspiring change is figuring out how to activate people who don't traditionally mentor in their community. By doing this, he hopes they feel changed and when they leave their program, they go volunteer elsewhere and build a generation of leaders in their community.

"There's amazing folks who are doing it," Toups said. "They're really lost about, 'How do I give back to my community?' And so I'm really championing that mentoring can be something they can do, because a lot of the folks in our generation who are in their 30s and 40s never had a mentor in their life. And so now, we're given the opportunity to turn around and actually be that mentor for kids."

When it comes to people inspiring change in their own communities, Vasquez said it's about creating these conversations about that intersectionality, even when they feel uncomfortable. Sometimes it just takes educating "those around us" since a lot of times people don't understand it due to a lack of exposure to it.

"I think even to this point, there's moments – even having this conversation, knowing where it's going – there's a little bit of fear," Vasquez said. "But then to be able to create these conversations, to create the safe space to say, 'You can be Black, you can be brown, you can be a minority, you can love football and you can love all the other things.' We keep talking about intersectionality, that's what's important."

Toups said organizations like the Rams can do their part by educating their fans and audiences about the LGBTQ community. He said a lack of knowledge and connection to the community causes "a lot of fear," and they want to inspire people to feel positive about their community.

"We work alongside each other. We eat lunch together, we volunteer together, and we're all just one people trying to move through this really challenging life," Toups said. "I think educating the audience that comes to the Rams and saying that we're an organization that really wants to uplift this community and show you that it's a very diverse community that enjoys sports and many other things, and as your brother and your sister and your co-worker, could go a long way."

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