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Berks County now has an alliance for businesses committed to being LGBTQ safe spaces

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
Enrique Castro is the first Latino executive director and CEO of Reading Pride Celebration.

 Gabriela Martinez / WITF

Enrique Castro is the first Latino executive director and CEO of Reading Pride Celebration.

A nonprofit in Berks County is bolstering LGBTQ businesses and entrepreneurs. In early January, Reading Pride Celebration launched the Berks LGBTQ+ Business Alliance, a support network for gay-owned and ally businesses. 

Enrique Castro, the first Latino executive director of Reading Pride Celebration, is a driving force behind the alliance.  Castro has seen the LGBTQ community – as well as the city’s yearly pride festival – blossom over the years. 

Reading is the only municipality in Berks County that has an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity.  That is why Castro and other volunteers felt more needed to be done to protect LGBTQ-owned businesses outside the city. Castro said he and his partner, who reside in Muhlenberg Township, had no such protections when they were discriminated against at their children’s daycare.

That concern gave rise to the Safe Space Program in 2014. Volunteers asked businesses to sign a pledge of non-discrimination to protect customers and employees.

“I thought about how we could expand it, and how we could help business owners, instead of simply asking them to sign a pledge,” Castro said. “So we started to brainstorm on what we can do, because in the absence of non-discrimination ordinances, it’s very important to engage the business community.”

The alliance has 14 businesses – including realtors, a security company, an animal rescue league and a food truck. 

Any business is invited to join, so long as it promises to offer a safe space for people of all sexual and gender identities.

Members will have access to training and can  connect with other businesses. A mentorship program will pair novice entrepreneurs with more experienced business owners.

“A lot of our community don’t have the support of their family, so they build their own family structures. But oftentimes, even if they wanted to be an entrepreneur, they’re too busy surviving, to focus on starting a business,” Castro said. 

The membership should ensure a diverse pool of candidates who might apply to work there, Castro added.

An annual membership fee of $50 to $500, depending on the size of the business, goes  toward planning networking and training events, Castro said. Members who set up a table or tent for their business during the Reading Pride Festival get a 25% discount off the vendor fee.

“We’re no longer the minority, in many places, as Latinos, but also as the LGBTQ community, we’re not so much the minority anymore, because our population is growing. People are coming out earlier and earlier than they ever have before,” Castro said. “And they’re starting to use their voices.”

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