To paraphrase that dreadful old Virginia Slims commercial, the LGBTQ community in Sonoma County has “come a long way baby,” since our early days of struggling for inclusion and visibility.
In fact, many of the current LGBTQ leaders among us were just babies in the 1980s when it began in earnest, or not yet born at all. As 35-year-old Spencer Blank, main organizer for the LGBTQ Pride events in Windsor this June, said, “We are standing on the shoulders of the past generation of leaders.”
So what does Spencer mean by that, and whose shoulders are they, anyway? And, wow, not only is a big splashy Pride parade and extravaganza happening this year in Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square, but there is a full week of events in Windsor and then another celebration in Petaluma for October’s Coming Out Day.
It all began, as most progressive things do, with a bunch of people protesting against injustice. In 1978 Californians were faced with the Briggs Initiative, which would have destroyed the careers of gay and lesbian teachers by making it illegal for them to work at their jobs. Gays and lesbians across the state, including in Sonoma County, banded together to successfully fight it. This was, at least in Sonoma County, the first time these two groups of people had joined forces. Before then, and even after the political fight was over, there had been separate gay male and separate lesbian groups, even bars established for gay male clientele or lesbians — but not both.
Then came the LaRouche Initiative, Proposition 64, in 1986, during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that was ravishing primarily the gay male community. Once again lesbians and gay men came together, to again defeat an initiative that would have forced people with HIV/AIDS to register with the state, and maybe even be segregated from the rest of society.
But this time, something different happened after it was all over. Many of the people in Sonoma County who had been involved in the No on 64 battle decided it was time to be proactive rather than reactive. We organized a group called Forward Together, with a mission of encouraging gays and lesbians to be open and proud about our lives and to be treated as respected members of our community.
Soon this group decided it was time to ask the county for the same recognition it gave to things like National Pickle Week, and a handful of us approached our most left-leaning supervisors — Ernie Carpenter and Helen Rudee — to put a Gay Pride Week on the agenda. They weren’t very enthusiastic about the idea, and refused to place it on their agenda. But Ernie voted for it every time after the Commission on the Status of Women did the job for us.
Ultimately it took six years to get the four votes needed to approve the measure and make it official. However, that first year, following the supervisors’ rejection, we held a Gay Pride Picnic at Spring Lake. There were gays and lesbians from around the county, our straight-but-not-narrow allies, children and dogs, a potluck meal and hamburgers and hot dogs barbecued by a gay veterans’ group, Veterans Care.
Even before the supervisors passed the resolution, the Lesbian Voters Action Caucus organized a Pride march through downtown Santa Rosa in 1991, on the sidewalk and without a permit or police protection. Over the years, the Lesbian and Gay Pride events — yes we didn’t start calling ourselves GLBTQ, etc. until some years later — took place in various locations and included food vendors, information booths, music, speeches, grand marshals and an unofficial wedding ceremony for all.
Fast forward to 2023. Sonoma County is now largely a welcoming place for GLBTQ people. I can walk down the street or sit in restaurants and bars holding my girlfriend’s hand and nobody looks askance. At least not that I notice. Chambers of commerce promote LGBTQ tourism and even host travel writers for the Pride events. There is an assortment of social groups, service organizations — primarily for GLBTQ youth — and the local libraries offer things like gay book clubs for teens and adults, story time with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in drag and other GLBTQ-oriented programming. And, of course Pride events around the county, businesses, libraries, private homes sporting rainbow flags, and welcoming and affirming signage everywhere you look.
Still, it is important to remember, as Stuart Wilkinson, a librarian and main organizer of GLBT doings at the libraries said, “We live in a bubble.” Elsewhere in our vast country politicians are attacking the rights and very lives of GLBTQ people, to gain political advantage. You know, like Hitler used the Jews. So enjoy the Pride events, with their party-like atmosphere, but keep in mind that famous saying, “Freedom is a constant struggle” — which is the name of Angela Davis’ newest book. And, yes, “Come out, come out wherever you are,” and whoever you are. Bring your children and grandchildren to Pride events and, of course, Drag Story Time. It will enrich yours and their lives immeasurably because we are all in this together.
Lois Pearlman is a theater artist, journalist and co-founder of North Coast Coalition for Palestine