It was another eventful night in the rural city of Porterville, California, a Central Valley town an hour outside of the Sequoia National Forest, dominated as much by farming and religion as it is by acres of orange groves.
What began as a routine City Council meeting on Tuesday nearly descended into violence outside the chambers as a conservative mayor clashed with an LGBT advocate and his wife, following a vote to reject a proclamation that would have honored National Coming Out Day later this month. It was the second such measure meant to celebrate the city’s LGBT community that the council has blocked this year.
No physical punches were thrown before a police officer was called over to intervene. But to many, the dispute still hurt.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there was a fight,” said Elliot Trueblood, a 23-year-old college student who struggled growing up gay in Porterville. “It upset me. I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of anger and disappointment at these individuals who are supposed to represent us.”
Porterville had recently stepped into the national spotlight after its then-mayor, Virginia Gurrola, signed a proclamation designating June a month of LGBT pride. The measure was intended to raise awareness about bullying and elevated suicide rates among LGBT youth, which studies have tracked. Although the city and its surrounding county, Tulare, had a history of overwhelming support for anti-gay initiatives–like Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage–advocates hoped that June’s Supreme Court ruling allowing Prop 8 to fall would be the beginning of a new chapter. What they found instead was lingering resistance in one of the earliest states to host the gay rights movement, and a painful reminder that progress is rarely linear.
Shortly after the pride proclamation was signed, the council then voted to rescind it, passing in its place a resolution that recognized “community charity and goodwill to all,” before voting 3-to-2 to replace Gurrola herself. Three were arrested after protests erupted when the proclamation was revoked.
Advocates saw the reorganization as a spiteful move, confirming the council members’ prejudice toward the LGBT community. But Cam Hamilton, who now sits as mayor, insists that it was because Gurrola acted without consulting her colleagues.
“My reasoning for voting for reorganization was that she overstepped her bounds per our policy, and used it as a unilateral decision,” Hamilton told MSNBC. “I’ve been on the council since 2002, and it was the first time I’ve ever seen a proclamation pushed through before we can add anything. It was the first time I’ve seen a sitting mayor disregard the wishes of the rest of the council.”
Fellow Councilman Pete McCracken, formerly vice mayor and the only member of the council to support Gurrola, said otherwise. In a July meeting, McCracken noted that it was in just the last two and a half years that all council members signed proclamations. For over 100 years before that, he said, only the mayor signed, as happened with the pride proclamation.
Gurrola declined requests for interviews due to a family health emergency, which also kept her from Tuesday’s meeting.
Down one member, the remaining four councilmen voted on Tuesday to pass three proclamations–one honoring a cancer survivors benefit; another, the library; and a third entitled, “Teen Read Week.” The request to honor National Coming Out Day–described as a moment “in recognition of the courage it takes to come out and respect for the diversity and dignity of all LGBT community members and employees of Porterville”–was rejected 3-to-1.
Melissa McMurrey, division leader of Gay Porterville and the proclamation’s author, said via email that she was “disappointed” in the council members’ decision. In a conversation prior to the vote, she went so far as to say that their actions were forcing her to adopt a “closeted perspective.”
“I’ve always been an out and open, strong lesbian,” McMurrey told MSNBC. “With what’s happened in City Council, I’ve become more sensitive to who I’m surrounded by for fear of that kind of response.”
According to attendees at Tuesday’s meeting, council members were mostly silent on their decision to vote down McMurrey’s proclamation. Mayor Hamilton, who was witnessed shouting at an advocate and his wife afterward, did not immediately return a request for comment. But in an earlier conversation, he voiced his opposition to measures that focus only on one group of people.
“I believe that it marginalized who people really are,” said Hamilton to MSNBC, in reference to the LGBT pride proclamation. “My sister is a lesbian, and there’s so much that makes her who she is. Her sexuality is such a minor part of it.”
Hamilton was a member of Porterville’s City Council in 2008, which was the only one in the state to pass a resolution in favor of Prop 8. Tulare County, in which Porterville resides, also made California history in its support of the ban, passing it with over 75%–the highest percentage statewide of yes votes.
Despite this legacy, Hamilton says the city’s LGBT community members are treated the same as everyone else, making all proclamations and programs devoted to them at best unnecessary, and at worst, discriminatory to the heterosexual population.
“I’ve never seen the gay community be denied anything in our town,” said Hamilton. “They eat at our eateries, they use our schools, they go to our bars.”
Porterville’s LGBT members and their straight allies couldn’t disagree more, reporting instances of bullying and discrimination throughout the community. When Mayor Gurrola initially honored the LGBT pride proclamation, for instance, McMurrey found anti-gay fliers plastered throughout the chambers with messages such as: “Proclaim Porterville is still a straight town.”
“It was hard for me to connect with other people [growing up] because it was instilled in me that being gay was not ok,” said Trueblood, who switched schools after tenth grade because he felt so uncomfortable. “I think quite a few individuals in Porterville lean anti-gay.”
Many residents believe the bigotry represents only a vocal minority and not the views of the community. In the last Porterville election, turnout was dismal, coming in at around 20%. Statewide, it one of the lowest turnouts in history. Advocates see the response to these proclamations as a signal that state and national LGBT rights groups need to focus their attentions more on rural communities, and making sure residents get to the polls.
“It’s given us a wakeup call that we have a lot more work to do to raise awareness,” said Brock Neeley, author of the pride proclamation, to MSNBC. Neeley and his husband, John Coffee, were the first gay couple in Tulare County to get married in 2008, before Prop 8 was passed.
“There are many people in Porterville who are ready for this kind of change,” said Dr. Ann Marie Wagstaff, a professor and chair of the Language Arts Department at Porterville College, to MSNBC. “What we have is a council leadership that doesn’t represent the people, and a brand of Christianity that doesn’t represent the community. It’s the leadership of this council that’s the problem and we need to change it.”