//Big Pride in the South Valley

Big Pride in the South Valley

By Nick Vargas | nick@thesourcelgbt.org

LGBTQ communities and their supporters will commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Stonewall Riots which occurred June 28, 1969.  The Stonewall Riots were a series of demonstrations by LGBTQ people against police raids on a gay bar, The Stonewall Inn.  The LGBTQ Pride celebrations we see today evolved from the yearly commemoration of Stonewall.  

One of the nation’s newest pride events is Pride Visalia; this upcoming Memorial Day weekend will mark the third annual Pride Visalia event.  The inaugural Pride Visalia festival was in June 2017 at The Old Lumberyard in downtown Visalia.  That first event was attended by over 1,500 people.  The second event boasted nearly 3,000 attendees, and the organizers expect to see about 4,500 people walk through the gates this year.

“It’s going to be our best Pride yet,” said event co-chair, Dean Jackson, “We are already at capacity with vendors, exhibitors, and sponsors.  There will be more drag shows, entertainment, food, and things to do and see this year,” said Jackson.

Pride Visalia is a signature event of The Source LGBT+ Center, headquartered in Visalia.  The Source was founded by Brian Poth, Nick Vargas, and a few others who saw a gap in services and activities for the LGBTQ population in Tulare and Kings Counties.  Since its founding in May 2016, The Source has tripled in both physical space and budget.  Co-founder and Executive Director Brian Poth attributes this growth to the strong need in the community.

“The Source fulfilled a need to provide a space for LGBT people to be themselves and create solutions to decades of discrimination, isolation, and a lack of inclusion in the Central Valley. The Source is doing the life-changing work around access to health care, culturally competent mental health, LGBT suicide prevention, and HIV education, support, and prevention” Poth explained. “Not only our LGBT+ community but the entire community in and around Tulare County have embraced us. It’s been overwhelming, and we’ve worked hard to earn and retain their trust,” Poth said.

Pride staff and friends

Indeed, The Source has secured a strong following and earned respect from the local community in its three-year existence.  In 2018 the organization was named “Nonprofit of the Year” by the Tulare Kings Hispanic Chamber as well as “Outstanding Queer Nonprofit” at the annual Queer Out Awards in Fresno.  Executive Director, Brian Poth, was named “Community Leader of the Year” by a fellow nonprofit organization, ACT for Women and Girls.  Most recently, The Source earned the top spot in its category for the second year in a row during “Give Out Day,” a national day of giving to LGBT centers, held every April.  This year, the Source had over 400 individual donors, beating out 94 other organizations to earn a $10,000 leaderboard prize in addition to the $7,000 in donations.

“We work closely with the community to keep The Source running and relevant,” said Nick Vargas, Source Director of Development and Strategy, “It’s an amazing feeling to see how the community rallies around us and supports us.”

Vargas said the increased interest in Pride Visalia has followed a trend since their first attempt to have a Pride.

“Right after we opened in May 2016, we wanted to have a Pride event in June.  We created an event on Facebook and planned to have a hundred people or so for a BBQ in the park, but it didn’t turn out that way,” Vargas said.  He explained that he had to cancel the event a week before it was scheduled to happen.

“The Sunday before the Pride BBQ in the park, the Orlando massacre happened.  Overnight our event went from 60 people to 300 who said they were going on Facebook. We couldn’t handle that many people in the spot we reserved,” Vargas said.  

The event was canceled, but Vargas and Poth promised their community that they would give them what they really wanted, a proper Pride celebration where hundreds of people could gather in solidarity and celebration.  In June 2017 they made good on their promise.

“The first year we had Pride Visalia, we held it in June because most Prides are held then to commemorate Stonewall,” said event Co-Chair Dean Jackson. He went on to say, “It was 105 degrees and miserable. But people still came out.  In a post-event survey, the attendees told us they loved it [Pride Visalia] and that it was so needed in our area, but to have it when it was cooler.  So, we listened, and now it’s in May.”

Two years later, Pride Visalia has become a staple in the local event scene, and one of the most well-attended Pride celebrations in the Central Valley.  The Pride Visalia website tells readers what to expect: “PRIDE Visalia is a celebration of diversity, inclusion, and acceptance, not only for LGBT+ people but for an entire community. The Source LGBT+ Center is proud to be a hub of resources, education, and support for our LGBT+ population. We hope that you can feel the LOVE we have for the city of Visalia and Tulare and Kings County. Food trucks and vendors, exhibits, entertainment, a Kid’s Zone, education, outreach, but most of all YOU.”

Priscilla McNamara, mistress of ceremonies, performs for the crowd. 

“The drag shows are probably the most popular part of the day,” explains co-chair Nick Vargas, “But the queer slam poetry, rock wall, music, and food were a hit last year.” This year, Pride Visalia will add additional entertainment including an LGBT Ballet Folklorico group and more art projects for children.  Another anticipated feature of the 2019 event will be “Free Mom Hugs.”

“Free Mom Hugs will be there this year. It’s a pet project of Chavaleh Forgey, associate pastor at Christ Lutheran here in Visalia,” said Vargas. “Chaveleh is very passionate about LGBT issues and wants to rectify the harm caused by the church to LGBT people.  She and about 50 other moms will be giving hugs to young people who are estranged from their families because they are lesbian, gay, transgender or bi” explained Vargas.  Free Mom Hugs was started by Sara Cunningham, who states on the Free Mom Hugs website, “I’m a Christian mom with a gay kid living in Oklahoma saying enough is enough. If I don’t fight for my son (and his rights) like my hair is on fire, then who will? It’s time we celebrate our LGBTQ+ children. And I won’t stop until I no longer hear horror stories from the LGBTQ+ community and their mothers. 

“Free Mom Hugs will be available at Pride Visalia for any person who no longer has a connection with their mom or parent because of who they are. I imagine anyone can get a hug who needs or wants one that day.  There’s plenty of love to go around” Vargas explained.

The event has grown as its budget has increased. Pride Visalia is funded by a $5 admission fee to the event and by generous sponsors.  The website lists the Anthem Blue Cross Foundation, The California Endowment, Walmart, Wells Fargo, and Tachi Palace as major sponsors of the event. Additionally, individuals and families can sponsor at the $100 level and get 4 passes to the event as well as a complimentary sitting the “Pride Portrait Studio.”

Though it’s the largest Pride event in the Visalia area, Pride Visalia is not the area’s first Pride celebration.

“There used to be a family fest in the park several years ago,” said Jackson, who was an attendee of the event. “It was groundbreaking at the time, but it was not like what we are doing now with Pride Visalia.  Still, it was ‘Family Fest’ that laid the groundwork for Pride Visalia” explained Jackson.  The last Family Fest was in September 2012 at Mooney’s Grove Park in Visalia according to its Facebook event page.

The Source cofounders, Brian Poth, and Nick Vargas credit the work of LGBTQ organizers and activist in the area who came before them as one of the reasons they are successful today.

“There were many people in the area over the last two decades advocating on behalf of the LGBT+ community. They were here during Prop 8 and living their lives in a time when it was much more difficult to do so” said Poth. “We’ve come a long way, but there is an incredible amount of work to be done,” said Poth, who is a Tulare city native and attended Tulare Union High School before moving to Los Angeles to become a television actor. He returned to Tulare 5 years ago to be closer to family.

When asked why people should attend Pride Visalia, Nick Vargas explained, “I’ve been to many Prides in different cities, and this one brings all the things I love about those Prides in one place.  There are colorful sights, interesting people, cool things to buy, see, and taste.  And there’s this tangible feeling of family and togetherness.  People are really happy and kind.  And you see LGBTQ people and a lot of straight allies side-by-side, as one community.  And this happening in my hometown, a place I never thought I’d see a Pride celebration.  For many local people, it’s their first Pride. There will even be people who come from out of town to experience a ‘small town pride.’” Vargas said.  “I think Pride Visalia is one of those experiences that benefits all who are there with a feeling of hope in humanity.  You’ll also leave with lots of good memories. I hope those reading this will join us.”

How to attend: 

Pride Visalia is May 25, 2019 from 11am to 4pm.  Location is The Old Lumberyard, 300 E. Oak Street, Visalia, CA 93291. Admission is $5; kids 10 years and younger are free.

More information and pre-sale tickets available at www.pridevisalia.org or by calling The Source at 559-429-4277 or email nick@thesourcelgbt.org