Jonny Saldana is a relatively new Charlotte resident (less than five years) with a busy schedule and much to offer Charlotte’s ever-expanding LGBTQ community. He’s a board member for The Plus Collective, a foundation that awards grants to organizations that support the LGBTQ community in the Charlotte region, while also cultivating partnerships with community allies. Saldana is also a newlywed, the co-founder and current executive director of the Charlotte Gaymers Network, and a reformed Republican with an interesting past. Saldana is well-vested in our city’s LGBTQ community, and it shows. During our interview, he offers his thoughts on various projects that continue to enrich our community while giving us a little peek into his private life.
L’Monique King: Where are you originally from?
Jonny Saldana: Miami Beach, Florida.
LMK: What brought you to Charlotte?
JS: Meeting my husband in 2018. He was very direct with me that he didn’t want to spend a lot of time in Miami, because of the weather. It was too hot and too humid for him. So, we moved to Charlotte in May of 2019 when he became an associate attorney with a law firm that has an office in Charlotte.
LMK: Where in Charlotte do you live?
JS: NODA. It’s a fantastic area. We’re a stone’s throw away from Chasers [nightclub].
LMK: You said you met your husband in 2018 and moved to the area a year later. How long have you been married?
JS: We’re newly married as of two weeks ago. We got married at the Ritz Carlton in Bal Harbour, Florida.
LMK: Congratulations. What made you decide to marry your husband?
JS: I think he’s the only person that I’ve met and been involved with that takes the community as seriously as I do. His commitment and passion for immigration work and making the community a better place [was attractive and inspiring].
LMK: As one who’s been deeply rooted in empowering our community, it’s no wonder you’d choose a life partner with similar ideals. What’s community work in Charlotte been like for you?
JS: I faced a lot of opposition when I first moved here. I made several missteps that I think turned a lot of people away from me. It took me about two years to do the reparative work needed to show people that I was somebody trying to unite and build community – especially for those most marginalized among us.
LMK: What exactly is it that you do?
JS: I’m the Managing Director of CLT Events – a business unit within the Carolina Esports Hub. I produce all types of events at our venue in the South End neighborhood. I love it. The freedom that my executive teams afford me allows me to dig deep in my community and have intention in partnering with organizations like CMS, HBCUs and local nonprofits in providing safe spaces at a discounted rate.
LMK: Tell me about your involvement with the Charlotte Gaymers Network?
JS: I’m [the] Co-founder and current Executive Director.
LMK: You’re under 40 and you’ve held some pretty weighty positions as a board member for organizations like Miami’s Prevention305, Charlotte’s Freedom Center for Social Justices along with being First Vice President for the Hispanic American Democrats of Mecklenburg County and a former Development Officer for SAGE. What inspires you?
JS: The state of our society. As a young leader in our community, I see every day that there isn’t much attention, time or resources poured into younger leaders. What truly inspires me is being surrounded on a weekly basis by people younger than me who are so fired up about building a better tomorrow, a better future for themselves and our community. I see that through their participation in the Charlotte Gaymers Network through our philanthropy and volunteer activities.
LMK: Tell us what makes Charlotte Gaymers Network special.
JS: We typically have very young LGBTQ+ people (18-21) who come to our events. Recently we had an 18-year-old come to an event, a first timer. When it was over, this person shared with me they were contemplating suicide because they felt that they didn’t have a [safe and affirming] place to go to as an introverted LGBTQ gamer.
They went on to say that having the space wasn’t something they had ever seen before in the community of Charlotte. That member has now become a regular, comes to all of our events and is one of our most productive volunteers. I’m quite proud of the fact that we have created a space unlike any other in the community of Charlotte. As space that literally has the ability to save lives.
LMK: It must be wonderful to know that you can touch lives in a way that makes such a meaningful impact. What types of events does CGN host?
JS: Gaymer Gathering happens the first Friday of every month. It’s a flagship event and the largest LGBTQ monthly event in the Carolinas and offers a free open bar, live music, DJs, drag shows and so much more. It’s extremely diverse.
Our newest product offering is Sapphic Social, an event produced by and curated for feminine identifying folks, non-binary, trans women and their allies.
LMK: Sounds like you are almost always working. What do you do for pleasure?
JS: Play video games and travel. Travel is something my husband and I enjoy, along with music so we travel to music festivals whenever we can.
LMK: What’s your best game?
Funny enough, World of WarCraft, I’m a big MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online/Game) Gamer
LMK: What was your greatest challenge this past year?
JS: I think like everybody in my age group, figuring out a work-life balance. I think it elluded me last year so I definitely think that will be one of my biggest challenges to overcome for 2023.
LMK: Share with our readers something most folks know about you?
JS: I used to be a Republican and worked on Republican campaigns alongside my family growing up. I left the party when I turned 18 and immediately began working for the Democrats. I am the grandson of Cuban exiles. In 1959 when Castro led a communist revolution in Cuba, he was using a lot of the same terminology that Democrats used at the time. Once he took over and reneged on those promises (buoying Democratic ideology) people shied away from him and went to the Republican party. In the 90s however, people became galvanized and they fell more staunchly to the right in American Ideology. Many Cubans, especially in Miami, are still hardline MAGA republicans, my grandparents included.
LMK: What happened? What prompted you to switch parties?
JS: Meeting my first boyfriend at the time. Realizing my sexuality and coming out of the closet, my understanding was that I didn’t have a future as a Republican if that was how I identified.
LMK: And your family, those staunch Republicans you spoke of, how accepting are they of your identity?
JS: Surprisingly they’re all fine with it. I think they separate me being gay from their hardline MAGA ideology. They still worship Trump but they’re totally fine with my husband and I.
LMK: If you could go back in time and give a word of advice to your 15-year-old self, what would you say?
JS: Resiliency is the one word that comes to mind. I would tell my 15-year-old self to stay resilient.
LMK: Moving from the past to the future, what do you hope to be doing 10 years from now?
JS: <pauses> Producing memorable events, hopefully at a national or even global scale.