A Rainbow in the Dark

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Posted December 3, 2008 in Feature Story

Make no mistake, gays and lesbians in the Inland Empire have made their presence known before, raised their voices in protest in the past. However, the lightning rod for such instances of solidarity have tended to center around a specific incident or issue. Nancy Tubbs, the director of UC Riverside’s LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Resource Center for nearly a decade, can recall two such examples.

 

One was when Proposition 22 arose, a 2000 California ballot measure approved by voters that effectively banned same-sex marriage. Another was when a gay man, Jeffery Owens, was stabbed to death in downtown Riverside with critics and activists decrying the murder as a hate crime.

 

“What I’ve observed is that the Inland Empire’s LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community tends to be visible when there is an issue or horrible incident—like what happened with Jeffrey Owens—and we have been mobilized to stand up,” Tubbs tells the IE Weekly. “My hope is this visibility will continue—that’s my hope.”

 

That continued visibility is in the process of being realized as a result of Proposition 8.

 

In the wake of the recent passage of this ballot measure—which eliminated the rights of same-sex couples to marry—gays and their straight allies from San Bernardino and Riverside counties rallied together like never before, organized like never before and in places they hadn’t been before. Out of the fallout is arising the beginnings of the Inland Empire’s first regional resource for issues that will continue to affect the lives of gays and lesbians.

 

This shift is an indication of how gay rights activism is moving beyond the established enclaves in West Hollywood (the first U.S. city to offer domestic partnerships to its residents), San Francisco (where Mayor Gavin Newsom was the first in the U.S. to issue marriage certificates to gay couples) and Palm Springs (where former Mayor Ron Oden had become the first openly gay African American elected to lead an American city)—and becoming more emboldened, taking root in a region noted for being a conservative stronghold and taking steps to become a more organized player in the larger LGBT universe.

 

“They are definitely more galvanized now,” says Rev. Jane Quandt, pastor for Riverside’s First Congregational Church, whose congregation includes several gay couples. “There is a new, serious movement.”

 

“Heartbreaking and upsetting”

 

Reactions to the passage of Prop. 8 were initially very emotional ones, Inland gays, lesbians and straights say. There was anger at the measure’s support base—which included conservatives, evangelical Christians, the Mormon and Catholic churches—and for deceptive and misleading ad campaigns.

 

“What they did to me and my husband, I will not forgive them,” says Andy S., an Inland area gay man in his mid-30s who requested that the IE Weekly only use his last initial and not identify what city he resides in. “I will never treat a Mormon missionary with respect. I will never again open my door to someone from the Mormon church or the Catholic Church.”

 

To be fair, there is no shortage of Inland gays and activists who say a hateful backlash against Mormons, disrespectful protests of churches or harsh criticism of  African American Christians or others who may have supported Prop. 8 is a shortsighted and wrongheaded approach.

 

“One of my reactions was, in fact, frustration, at the rhetoric of blaming that has gone on,” Tubbs says. “I would hope it would lead to more dialogue and conversation about the impact [of Prop. 8’s passage].”

 

That impact also included emotional devastation for married gays and others.

 

Jill Johnson-Young, a 44-year-old social worker from Riverside, recalled reactions to the proposition’s passage—which struck especially close to home as she had gotten married to her partner of 21 years in September in a dual ceremony with their best friends.

 

“We cried, our kids cried,” she says. “They said, ‘When are they going to understand that you just love each other and want to be married? Why can’t our parents be married? Our friends’ parents are married. Why can’t they just leave us alone?’”

 

The impact for Sarah Hill, a 27-year-old writer whose younger brother is gay, caused pain and sadness within her family. She had recently discovered her father had donated $5,000 to support Prop. 8.

 

“Finding that out was one of the most heartbreaking and upsetting things I’ve every experienced,” she says.

 

Statewide controversy

 

Equally contentious has been the same-sex marriage issue in California.

 

Prop. 22, which voters passed in 2000 with more than 61 percent of the vote, made only marriages between men and women valid in California.

 

That initiative was struck down in May of this year when the state Supreme Court ruled that barring same-sex couples from marriage is unconstitutional. In 2004, many gay couples were married in San Francisco as a result of mayor Newsom issuing same-sex marriage certificates—but they were later nullified by the court.

 

Prop. 8—whose wording and intent were essentially the same as Prop. 22—amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The amendment overruled the court’s decision in May that legalized gay marriage. It had no effect on domestic partnerships, which were enacted in 1999 and offer same-sex couples some of the same rights, protections and benefits as married couples in California.

 

About 67 percent of voters in San Bernardino County voted in favor of Prop. 8, with about 64 percent in Riverside County voting for it as well. Statewide, the measure passed with 52 percent of the vote.

 

Prop. 8’s opponents say the measure discriminates against gays and lesbians and deprives them of the civil rights to wed, rights guaranteed to everyone else.

 

Currently, Massachusetts and Connecticut are the only states that allow gay marriage. Bans of same-sex marriage have been enacted in at least 30 states.

 

On Nov. 19, the California Supreme Court accepted three lawsuits seeking to nullify Prop. 8 but refused to allow gay couples to resume marrying before it rules on the measure’s constitutionality. Arguments are expected to begin early next year.

 

Regional protests

 

Just days after the measure passed—mirroring similar demonstrations in larger, more metropolitan communities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco—hundreds of Inland area gays and straights rallied against Prop. 8 outside city halls in Colton, Hemet, Moreno Valley, Riverside, Redlands and Palm Springs, part of a national protest against newly approved same-sex marriage bans (or bans preventing gay couples from adopting in other states). Similar protests also took place in San Bernardino, Big Bear and Victorville.

 

“They are definitely more galvanized now,” Quandt says.

 

Just one day after the Nov. 15 demonstrations, the Jeffery Owens Community Center, a Riverside-based gay advocacy and support group, declared it an “exciting and challenging time” and posted the following on its website:

 

In the wake of Proposition 8, we are coming together like never before . . . We in the Inland Empire must come together in peace and strength to assert ourselves, make ourselves visible and claim our rightful place in the greater Inland Empire, California and beyond. WE CAN DO IT! 

 

But Inland activism was just getting started.

 

“They have awakened a sleeping giant,” Andy S. says. “We are here, we are not going away; nothing will make us go away.”

 

On Nov. 20, hundreds gathered at Riverside Community College to protest against a Kansas pastor who preaches against gays and lesbians. The pastor, the Rev. Fred Phelps, did not show up, however. He and his followers planned to protest the performance of The Laramie Project, a play about Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student who was murdered in 1998 and helped bring attention to hate crime legislation.

 

Phelps is the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, whose core support is built around the “God hates fags” platform. His supporters carry signs with anti-gay slogans at events such as funerals of gays and gay pride celebrations.

 

As a precaution, college police deployed 19 of the department’s 25 officers to keep the peace, some in riot gear, according to news reports. Police estimated as many as 400 people, some with “Stop the Hate” signs, were there as a counter-protest to Phelps followers.

 

Word of this counter-protest had spread quickly via word-of-mouth, text messages, Facebook and MySpace.

 

Jump-starting a campaign

 

To be sure, the “No on 8” campaign got a late start in Inland Empire.

 

When No on Prop. 8 organizers scheduled a teleconference to map out their campaign across California, not a single soul from the Inland Empire was there to take part in the discussion. Organizers had no contacts in the region.

 

The campaign was already underway in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco since February and March. But in the IE, things didn’t kick off until about five weeks before Election Day, Cadyn Cathers, one of two Inland Empire No on 8 organizers, says.

 

This was due to a number of factors. There was the assumption the proposition was bound to pass in such a conservative region and the campaign focused elsewhere initially. But also, the Inland Empire lacked visibility and the extensive, established activism and advocacy networks found in areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

 

“We don’t really have an infrastructure in Riverside or San Bernardino [counties],” Cathers says.

 

“Some people were desperate to help, they wanted to make a difference but they didn’t have the leadership to do it,” she adds. 

 

Cathers and Alison Bowen, another field organizer, hit the ground running, contacting about 700 Inland volunteers and setting up two phone banks making thousands of calls to garner support and donations. Roughly $7,000 was raised solely from the Inland Empire donors.

 

In the end, Bowen says, a total of roughly 2,000 gays and straight volunteers from the Inland region took part to defeat Prop. 8.

 

“I think that it allowed people, especially the LGBT community, to realize how many of us are out there in the Inland Empire,” Bowen says. “The thing is that people don’t realize that their neighbors or their friends or their coworkers are gay or lesbian.”

 

A new beginning

 

Contact information from volunteers and other groups will be used to create a database on which to build a regional umbrella—similar to what can be found in Los Angeles or San Francisco—aimed at tackling a myriad of LGBT issues.

 

“There’s huge support out here—it’s just hidden,” Cathers said. “It’s just not blatant.”

 

A steering committee representing groups from both Riverside and San Bernardino counties was recently formed, Bowen says. The committee will represent 25 Inland area groups, such as the Jeffrey Owens Community Center, the Inland Empire Human Rights Coalition and Cal State San Bernardino’s Pride Center. The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for later this month in San Bernardino.

 

“We want to start to build something here,” Cathers said.

 

When fully realized, the Inland group would receive information from and serve as a contact for other, larger LGBT networks.

 

“What’s happened in the Inland Empire is that we have a lot of small organizations but we’ve really never had a clearinghouse for information,” Bowen says. “We’ve never really had one central location where information can be funneled through and can be disseminated to our community.”

 

Pastor Quandt’s sentiments echo the solidarity that has begun to coalesce.

 

“I hear seriousness,” she says. “I hear clarity. I hear unity in ways I did not hear it before.”


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