Santa Rosa's Brew Coffee and Beer House a safe space for LGBTQ community

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On June 26, 2015 Alisse Cottle and Jessica Borrayo hoisted a 5-foot-long rainbow flag to fly outside their Santa Rosa coffee shop and tap room to celebrate the Supreme Court decision granting same-sex marriage rights. It’s flown just outside the doors every day since that landmark decision as a beacon and a welcome sign to the gay community.

But it was never the couple’s intention to make a statement. “The day (same-sex) marriage became legal, it was a celebration,” recalls Cottle, who manages the front of the house, while Borrayo handles finances and business aspects of the 2-year-old business. “Immediately we got really positive responses, but we thought about whether we should be nervous about putting it out...There are always people who are going to discriminate, even in our little bubble of Sonoma County,” Cottle adds. “I never saw a giant rainbow flag in downtown, so it was something that we watched and waited to see. We want Brew to be safe.”

At a moment in history where issues of gay rights, race and gender are being reframed, Cottle and Borrayo recognized the need for an inclusive, safe, positive and accepting environment for all. Their cozy cafe, with hand-me-down sofas, unicorn art and near-nightly community events has become that place.

Next to the waving rainbow flag, an unambiguous sign states to all who enter: “We welcome all races, all religions, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all genders. We stand with you. You are safe here.” Given to the owners by a customer, it’s a symbol of an inclusionary movement taking root throughout the country, one photocopied or handwritten sign at a time.

“At the time when a lot of LGBT rights are being attacked, it felt appropriate,” said Cottle, who is a mother of three with flowing blonde curls and a penchant for tops that showcase her colorful tattoos. Sitting next to her, Borrayo smiles easily from beneath a baseball cap, and lets Cottle do most of the talking.

“Our political state right now is stepping backwards, and that’s the scary reality,” Cottle says. “We were taking big steps forward and now we’re fighting over bathrooms? ... It’s like saying we’re going back to segregation. How is that something we’re talking about?” she asks. “It’s important to us as businesses that we stay human. We try to be who we are. We’re in a people business that’s about human connection.”

That includes a special all-ages “Gay Night” the last Friday of each month. Brew is also hosting a monthly “Letter People” mixer for LGBTQ folks and their allies and various Pride events and fundraisers for issues important to the gay community. They’re clear, however, that the space isn’t mean to cater exclusively to a certain demographic, but simply be a place where people can connect.

“We’re not a bar, and I love that we can welcome people of all ages. It just adds a different element for the younger and older people to come together,” Cottle said. “Santa Rosa is such a hub, and this is a central spot north of San Francisco. The younger generations are right here,” she said, noting that many gay culture events tend to happen in Guerneville, rather than in Santa Rosa. “People here really want to get involved.”

The two women constantly look at each other with affirmation during an interview, having met four years ago when both were coming out of relationships with men.

“I fell in love with a person,” said Cottle, who met Borrayo while the two were working at Taylor Maid Coffee. As their relationship deepened, the couple decided to open Brew together, a space that serves coffee and a light food menu along with beer and cider.

“We’re partners in life and business, and we wanted to be who we are in our business. We let everyone know that we’re family here,” Cottle said, who also employs her oldest daughter at the cafe.

As a family, that also includes training staff to use inclusionary terms and to be welcoming to all individuals: gay, straight, trans and of any color, creed or personal identification. That’s not always easy to get right, said Borrayo.

“It’s on how you don’t use gender specifics, and maybe the name on the credit card isn’t the name they identify with,” she said. “Maybe they use a different pronoun. So, when we hire new employees they get a lesson on understanding our culture, and we do that with everyone behind the counter. It’s to create a sensitivity for openness,” she said.

“In the last year, I’ve tried to consciously change how I address every person so I don’t offend or mis-gender someone. No one wants to be assumed to be anything,” she added.

Cottle sums up the Brew philosophy this way: “We just want this to be an environment where people can make connections and friendships, no matter who they are.”

Brew Coffee and Beer is at 555 Healdsburg Ave, Santa Rosa,707-303-7372, open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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