There are two Californias. The first is the California of Hollywood, Berkeley, and San Francisco. That’s the California most people have in mind when they think about the Golden State. Liberal, open-minded, live-and-let-live. Traditionally, a very blue state.
I don’t live in that California. I live in the vast Central Valley, home to places like Merced, the community hardest hit in the nation by the collapse of the housing market, the ever-denigrated Fresno, and Johnny Carson’s foil, Bakersfield. My California is deeply red, generally poor, and conservative in the extreme. (there are four churches of conservative denominations within a block of my home!) Things are, however, to paraphrase a video campaign, getting better.
Last year, the City Council of Visalia, my hometown, proclaimed June as LGBT Pride Month. That was (and still is) a first in the Central Valley. Next Monday, history is set to repeat itself, with the second LGBT Pride Month proclamation by the Council. Visalia is still the only city or county body in Central California to make such a proclamation.
At 7pm, the City Council of Visalia will once again proclaim June LGBT Pride Month in Visalia. The presentation will be one of the items on the agenda, and will be part of the opening moments of the meeting. Visalia’s come a long way in a relatively few short years.
In the 1980′s, a rural business just outside the city somehow gained the reputation as being a gay bar. Although some in the LGBT community probably visited the business on occasion, it was by no means anything close to being an establishment that catered to the LGBT community. Regardless, it was burned to the ground.
In 2001, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Visalia Unified School District, over harassment of a gay student. In 2002, the case was settled with the District agreeing to training and educational requirements that have set standards for schools across the state.
This region voted 75% in favor of Proposition 8, the state initiative that overturned the state Supreme Court ruling that granted marriage equality. That was in 2008. Today, the measure would probably not pass statewide, but would most likely still gain a majority of voters here.
A general lack of diversity, compassion, and tolerance marked this region for decades. Nevertheless, I don’t want to give a completely negative view of my city. No community exists in a vacuum, and Visalia is no different. With the changes in the wider world towards tolerance, understanding, and acceptance, things have changed here, as well. As more people have come out, and more families realize they have loved ones who are gay, respect has grown. With increasing familiarity presented by the media, and respected members of the community stepping up, the strong anti-gay bias of the region is ebbing.
Indeed, a lot of things have changed for the better here, and relatively quickly, at that. Visalia has long been called the “Jewel of the Valley”. A vibrant downtown rescued from the march of major businesses to the shopping malls down Mooney Boulevard that left the streets nearly empty during the 70′s now hosts a variety of successful businesses, from coffee shops, restaurants, specialty stores, and professional offices. Visalia is the county seat of Tulare County, and hosts the Visalia Rawhides Advanced-A, California League affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. The overall community has been changing for decades. That change now extends to acceptance, support, and respect for the LGBT members of our families and the wider society we all share.
For a time, the Tulare Kings PFLAG coming up on it’s 5 year anniversary, was the fastest growing and largest PFLAG group in California. It continues to be a strong voice in the community. The Visalia Pride Lions is the second LGBT Lion’s group in the USA, and was formed only recently. The community college, College of the Sequoias, has a pride club. Several high schools have a GSA. Dinner groups, bowling leagues, softball teams, and other social organizations have integrated into the wider community over the past five to ten years. Even our current mayor, Amy Shuklian is an out lesbian. There was no controversy about her and her partner as she ran for election to the city council. She is a beloved figure around town. The fact that she’s also a stand-up comedian, often riffing on her Armenian ancestry, probably doesn’t hurt!
So things are improving here by leaps and bounds. This proclamation, the second of what we expect to be many more to come, proves the first was not just a fluke, and that Visalia is leading the way in Central California, showing other communities how it should be done. June will again be LGBT Pride Month in Visalia.