Porterville, CA is a small city of 55,000 in the Central Valley midway between Fresno and Bakersfield, nestled at the eastern edge of the Central Valley and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Last night, our City Council continued its 5-year escalation of anti-LGBT measures with a triple-header. These may have been the first anti-LGBT measures passed in California, or even in the entire U.S., since the twin Prop. 8 and DOMA rulings from the US Supreme Court last month.
How did this come to be?
In late summer 2008 Council unanimously passed a Resolution in favor of Prop 8, and a nascent LGBT community was born. We addressed Council at every opportunity, and when another anti-LGBT Resolution was proffered, it was defeated 3-2 after a 90 minute public hearing primarily featuring fire-and-brimstone preaching, praying and other church activities. Council and the city were shocked at the outcome of the vote.
After that, there was an effective political truce. We monitored Council so the wouldn’t do anything inappropriate, and they mostly behaved. With the additional energies not needed to spend on Council, the growing community turned towards do-gooding in town. Much of the work has been devoted to mental health issues, such as suicide prevention and anti-bullying efforts, in Porterville and the surrounding Tulare County.
That continued for 4 years, when, at the beginning of June, Brock Neeley approached recently elected Mayor Virginia Gurrola to issue a LGBT Pride Month Proclamation using the City’s standard procedure. She readily agreed and it was scheduled to be presented at June 4th’s Council meeting.
At that point, all hell broke loose. All four Councilmen objected at the reading of the Proclamation, breaking protocol that they all sign it and shake the hands of the recipients. Only Mayor Gurrola signed it and only she came off the dais to shale the hands of the volunteers.
An overflow crowd was present, just like in 2009, and the ensuing public comments were so mean-spirited it left the Mayor in tears. It would not be the last time she cried by a long shot.
For a total of four meetings in seven weeks until last night, the Councilmen fomented anti-LGBT crowds, who have included Westboro Baptist associates and worse. Still, three of them, with one on the fence, raced to find a way to rescind a Proclamation, which we think is unprecedented in California, and to replace it with a thinly disguised religions Resolution (not Proclamation) designed to show tolerance for all. In addition, changing the process of how Proclamations are issued so that LGBT-related proclamations will likely never happen again was on the agenda.
In the end last night, on a series of 3-2 votes, the process was changed, the Proclamation was rescinded, and the bogus Resolution installed. As the final action was take, GetEqual activists from the area, including Robin McGehee (who is from our area), staged a civil disobedience action. Three were arrested, and the Council dais broke out in chaos as well. There was enough yelling at each other on the dais to draw watchful police eyes focused there.
Again, the Mayor was left in tears. So was the LGBT community of Porterville, but not for the same reason.
What is next?
In the short term we ask for the response of the public to send their thoughts to each of the Councilmembers and to cc: us so that we know what has been said. Mayor Gurrola spoke that in the last six weeks, she has received support messages from across California and the US and even the world. We don’t know what the others got besides a copy of a petition with over 1000 names on it. We encourage you to contact them and let us know what you said so we can leverage that in coming campaigns.
Our email: email@example.com
Our community has grown from about 5-8 people in 2008 to well over 100 people willing to speak at Council. Many individuals — lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender — came out to speak, several to say they were coming out for the first time. Very powerful under such circumstances. And many more have approached us but not been willing to speak.
One of the last public speakers last night before the votes was a local young man who said he was coming out at that time. None of us knew him. He spoke of how he hated his life, living in Porterville, growing up here, the people here, everything. He slipped away in the crowd. Our trained mental health and suicide prevention volunteers are worried and trying to identify and find him. At the same time, at the instigation of Councilman Brian Ward, a school psychologist by trade who moonlights on Council demeaning and diminishing public mental health work, managed to ram through all that he wanted.
As a community, we will regroup and make a better Porterville. We are aiming first and foremost to reach out to the outside world, to have connections with people and groups with whom we can partner and who will look in on us. We have begun that effort, but it is just a start. There will be much more to come with your help.
If I woke up one day soon and a lot of skilled graphic artists who could help us had introduced themselves, that would not be a bad day. We have plans, but we have limited skillsets. That is an area where I can anticipate any help would be very high value to us.
We will take this hit, and set about the work with you to making sure Porterville becomes part of California again. The best way right now to join us is to like our Facebook page. Be sure that you are set to receive all of our notifications. We will be in touch there!
Barry Caplan is coordinator of Porterville Equality and Fairness for All (PEFA), a coalition of local LGBT supportive groups, and local chapters of national organizations. Please like PEFA on facebook at facebook.com/PortervilleEqualityAndFairnessForAll. You can find all the latest coverage, including videos, on this facebook page. You can email PEFA at firstname.lastname@example.org