This article appeared on the Visalia Times Delta’s webpage, and was in the printed edition, Inspire section, 7/16/2016.
Such concepts may be difficult to grasp for many, let alone accept as a possibility, especially here inTulare County, the nation’s No. 1 Ag producer. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), however, knows they are a reality.
They also know members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community who live in rural areas are often invisible to the wider community, and underserved by the government at all levels.
On Thursday, July 21, USDA, in association with the NCLR (National Center for Lesbian Rights) and Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, will host the latest in a series of regional summits, called RuralPride. Visalia will be the first community to host the gathering in the western United States.
The USDA serves a wide variety of populations as it carries out its duties. The RuralPride campaign is dedicated to ensuring the resources of the Federal government are available to the LGBT community that might not be aware of them.
After all, you can’t access programs if you don’t know they exist. RuralPride Summits are designed to bring together agencies and the public to discuss housing loans, facility grants, and anti-bullying campaigns, to name just a few of the services available.
USDA has been a leader in the Federal government in outreach to underserved populations across the country. As they’ve been made aware of our, shall we say “interesting” history, it became clear that more attention needed to be directed here.
A few years ago, a group of us were enjoying after-dinner coffee and conversation at the Marriott Hotel’s lounge. We met two young gay men who were members of a group doing contract survey work in the San Joaquin Valley for the CDC. They joined us, and during the conversation complimented Visalia on its welcoming and friendly atmosphere. They were especially impressed with how open they could be, and how well they were treated.
The old timers in our group looked at each other with confusion, and had to ask them, “are you talking about THIS Visalia?” We grew up here, and our default image of Visalia and its relationship to the LGBT community was very different.
Growing up in Visalia in the late 1960s and into the ’70s, I was unaware of the LGBT community. It was invisible to me. The only examples I had of gay people were from television and the movies, where the depictions were always negative.
Of course, in school and the community, the absolute worst thing you could call someone was “gay” (or rather, one of the unfortunate terms for a gay man or a lesbian). Any conversations about the subject were derogatory, hateful, and threatening. There were no positive role models that I could see. It would take 40 years for me to find out that two of the six of us that went to Senior Prom together were gay. (well, one gay, one lesbian)
In the ’80s, AIDS ravaged the gay community. As it gained prominence in the news, it drove me much deeper into the closet, as the hysteria was deep and widespread. The inaction of the federal government to the level of White House staff laughing with reporters when asked about it added to the stigma and fear. And still, the LGBT community in Tulare County was invisible to me.
In other places, the LGBT community was fighting back. In Dallas in 1981, a Federal Court ruled against a case brought by Steve “Slade” Childers and the ACLU. In his suit, Childers sued the City of Dallas and its police department for discrimination. Despite getting the highest scores of anyone taking the civil service tests for the job of police evidence technician, the police department refused to hire Childers, already a city employee with excellent performance reviews, due to his being openly gay. The court ruled it was acceptable for the police department to refuse his employment. It was illegal for a person to have sexual relations with a member of their sex, making him an admitted law-breaker, and that it was unreasonable to expect other police department employees to behave in a professional manner around him.
Childers has been a Visalia resident for close to 40 years now, with his partner Ralph. He is a USDA employee and suggested that Visalia be one of the locations for a Rural Pride Summit in California.
In the 1990s, local members of the LGBT community were holding dances, picnics, and charity fundraisers. Still invisible to me, I was unaware of the community all around me. It didn’t help that I wasn’t out to myself at the time. I’m convinced the invention of the Internet, and its rapid inclusion into our lives changed the LGBT community forever. Suddenly, the community became visible. It was an eye-opener, to say the least. Some things didn’t change so fast, however.
In 2002, a student at Golden West High School won a lawsuit against the Visalia Unified School District. George Loomis had suffered ongoing anti-gay harassment at Golden West and sued. As much as things were changing in the nation, there was still a lot of animus directed at the LGBT community. Especially in rural areas like Tulare County.
In 2012, Visalia became the first city in the Valley to issue a proclamation recognizing June as LGBT Pride month. They did it again in 2013. Those proclamations raised hardly a ripple in the community.
Bigotry in Porterville
Porterville, however, was a different matter. In 2013, the mayor issued a similar proclamation, and the backlash was swift, severe, and incredibly hostile. People from Porterville stood before the council in public comments periods, waving Bibles, and expressing their feelings that, as it said in those Bibles, gays were “worthy of death.”
The controversy resulted in the Mayor and Vice Mayor being removed from their ceremonial posts on the council, the proclamation being rescinded, and a tepid resolution of “goodwill to all” was passed to replace it. The rules were then changed to require a vote of the entire council to issue a proclamation.
Comments made by city council members since those incidents indicate that not much has changed there. Bullied children are advised to “grow a pair” by the Mayor. The council has refused to recognize any requests for proclamations or resolutions made by the LGBT community.
In the 2010 census, an interesting fact emerged. Per capita, Tulare County has one of the highest rates of gay couples raising children in the nation. Along with our position as the nation’s number one ag producer, we’re also one of California’s poorest counties. Many of those families are living in or near poverty. The Rural Pride Summit looks to address those issues, to bring resources to bear in an attempt to improve access to services that exist.
In a series of panel sessions and discussions at the day-long event, the state of services to the LGBT community will be examined, with guest speakers from government and the community discussing the resources available, how to improve access to existing programs, and to identify needs not currently being met.
USDA staff will interact with the general public, as well as leaders and members of the LGBT community. Individuals from theSOURCE LGBT+ Center, PFLAG, Visalia Pride Lions, regional activists from Fresno and Bakersfield, local government officials, GayVisalia, GayPorterville, and others, will all work to bring the resources of the Federal government to the Central Valley’s underserved and often unrecognized LGBT community.
Jim Reeves blogs about LGBT issues at http://www.visaliatimesdelta.com/blog/alternatingcurrents.
How to attend
What: USDA #RuralPride Summit
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, July 21. Doors open at 8:30 a.m.
Where: Visalia Convention Center
Cost: Free. Lunch will be provided.