Located in California’s vast Central Valley, just about exactly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Visalia is a community of 125,000, and is the county seat of Tulare County. The region is conservative, both politically and socially, being a strong “red” area on maps during elections. With a 3 to 1 ratio of Republican to Democratic voters, change sometimes comes slowly.
This Monday, June 18, 2012, however, will mark a historic day in the local LGBT community. On that date, the city council will proclaim June as LGBT Pride Month in Visalia.
Ten years ago, a high school student in VIsalia had to sue the school district over harassment he underwent at the hands of other students, and even teachers. Over the years, change has been slow. Lately, however, with the change in public attitudes towards LGBT people’s rights, even Visalia has been affected.
In 2008, the first Pride in the Park was held at the city’s municipal park, Plaza Park. A large turnout for that event, the first in over ten years, broke the ice for further advancement. Family Fest, another Pride event hosted by GayVisalia.com, has been held in the historic Mooney’s Grove Park each September since 2009.
Weekly Meet & Greets, originally held by this blog’s local chapter, then known as QueerVisalia (also the host to the Pride in the Park), is now a weekly dinner group, TEDG (Tuesday evening dining group), and hosts dinners at area restaurants. An informal gathering after dinner also takes place, at the Marriott Hotel’s lounge, or the home of TEDG participants.
A local softball league team, the Visalia Skittles, does well each season. The team members have a dedicated fan base, that always attends the games and cheers them on.
The Visalia Pride Lions is the second LGBT oriented Lions group in the US, and is active in local public service, sponsoring LGBT student scholarships.
A local bowling group meets every month for the enjoyment of the LGBT community.
Several local high schools have GSAs, including the school sued by the ACLU and student George Loomis in 2002.
The local PFLAG is one of the most active and largest groups in California, and marches in many Pride parades, including Fresno and San Francisco. (The founders were told they’d never get a PFLAG off the ground in this area. That turned out to be incorrect!)
A group of local LGBT folks meets for breakfast once a week, and another has a monthly pot-luck held at various homes of it’s members.
When you start thinking of the number of people and groups who are out and active in Visalia, it becomes clear much has changed since I grew up here. When I was a teenager back in the 1970′s, there were no positive role models, no supporting leaders, or reliable research documents available to young gay people. All mentions of LGBT were invariably negative and hostile, at least in my little part of Visalia (then with a population of around 35,000).
A few months ago, a visitor to Visalia, who joined us at one of our sessions at the Marriott, commented on how progressive and active the LGBT community was in Visalia. A gay man in his late 30′s, who travels extensively for his job with a company that does health and welfare surveys for the Centers for Disease Control, he’s seen many communities across the nation both large and small. His comments about Visalia had us old hands sitting at the table looking at each other and thinking “what Visalia is he talking about??”. We asked him to expand on his comment, as it seemed quite at odds with our view of things. He told us that the community here, what little he had seen of it, was much more “out”, active, friendly, and supportive than he had seen in other communities, even in some large cities.
To those of us who grew up here, it sometimes seems that Visalia is hopelessly mired in the conservative past, hostile to LGBT people, and resistant to change. To someone new to town, however, things appear differently. Monday’s Proclamation is one more example of the change here, and it is worth noting in passing that the Mayor of Visalia is an out lesbian, who ran for her city council seat without trying to hide that fact, or her partner. Rainbow wrist bands, from the Rainbow Delegation, are seen all over town, and stickers and flags can also be seen on the bumpers of passing cars and trucks. We even have a local author of four (soon to be five!) lesbian mystery novels living in Visalia.
Monday’s turnout is expected to be large, spilling out into the hallway of the City Hall council chambers. For local readers, the meeting begins at 7pm, at City Hall, at the corner of Acequia and Johnson streets in downtown Visalia.
Here’s the PDF of the Proclamation:
Things are changing, even in Visalia. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere. All it takes is people willing to be out, proud, and active.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead