The largest gay event in the Central Valley shares the story of their arduous journey to maintain LGBTQ visibility within the city of Fresno
by Lisa Talley
A single spark is enough to set the world afire. The same is said for the movements that change the course of history. It starts with an idea, a single word, or a single step to set the right things in motion. In just a few days, on June 3rd, Fresno Rainbow Pride Parade and Festival will be celebrating their 27th year in the historic Tower District complete with the theme: “One Step Starts A Movement” to commemorate the many milestones achieved in the fight for Equality.
From 1955 when the first known Lesbian rights organization formed in San Francisco to the ban lift of Transgendered people serving in the U.S. military in 2016. “It is only through a community’s unity that we can overcome injustice towards all groups of people,” says the committee about their message behind the parade and festival.
Despite the impressive progress the LGBTQ community has seen throughout the country, as well as around the globe, the movement is still in full swing with the growing need for change right here in the Central Valley. But to know where this fight is going, it’s important to know where it has been and for that, we need to go back to the beginning.
“We’ve never had massive support from our allies,” shares Jeffery Robinson, Lead Coordinator, longstanding committee member, and one of the 12 original founders of the Fresno Pride Parade and Festival, “No one has ever rallied around us and [in our defense] said ‘no, we don’t put up with [hateful behavior], it’s all about inclusion, tolerance, and equality.’ That’s never happened in the city of Fresno.”
In 1991 the very first Pride parade was met with a protest from the Klu Klux Klan. But before the parade could take the flight down Olive Ave, the founders were met with resistance from members of their own community.
In the Beginning
1990 could be considered the first year of the official Pride celebration in Fresno when 12 individuals got together and decided that it was time for the local LGBTQ community to be visible. In the beginning, the parade was small and took place inside of a bar with attendees decorating baskets and carts in a similar fashion to parade floats. But it was quickly decided that wasn’t enough.
“We wanted something that couldn’t be pushed away. Something that couldn’t be closeted,” Robinson recalls from the days of establishing the parade march.
However, obtaining and securing a permit for the event was more complicated that it would seem. The early 90s was a time filled with activism for the LGBTQ community and some felt that battles were won through a delicate balancing act with regard to more conservative areas, such as Fresno, and the influential opinion was that Fresno was not ready for an ’out’ Pride celebration.
“Gay and Lesbian individuals who were in positions of leadership, who were visible community members, tried to work with the city government and Tower [District] businesses to stop us from having a parade on the streets of Olive Ave,” shares Robinson on the argument which few felt that the celebration would send the movement backwards, causing more harm than good.
The opposition failed and the permit was won. However, the committee was soon to face their next show of resistance; the KKK. Stationing themselves between what is now Sequoia Brewery and the Tower Theatre, the KKK came dressed in full traditional Klan attire complete with robes and infamous hoods, facing absolutely no opposition from any other members of the local community. But in spite of the display of intimidation, the committee was ready with a strong show of support.
Organizations from San Francisco and Los Angeles came to show their support with members representing from Queer Nation, Act Up, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and roughly 20 bikers from the Women’s Motorcycle Contingent (Dykes on Bikes) to round out the march.
“When the contingents of Act Up and Queer Nation arrived at where the Klan were rallied, a young man all of 18 years old ran up and grabbed the hood off of one of the Klan members and tore it. Many of the folks from San Francisco and LA had never experienced a protest like this,” Robinson says of the clash, “the rest of the Klan stepped into the street as if to retaliate, but across the street were the Motorcycle Contingent riders. They popped their kickstands, got off their bikes and the Klan got right back up on the sidewalk.”
The KKK continued to protest the parade for the next 2 years. On the third year, the committee was contacted by Fresno Police Department who had credible intelligence that the Klan would not only be present but would be coming with weapons. Sure enough, the parade march was met by the Klan but this time they waited for the Women’s Motorcycle Contingent to pass before a few of their members went back to their vehicles, popped the trunk, and stood, waiting with hands lightly pressed on their trunks appearing to wait for an opportune moment. The FPD arrived and found that they did, in fact, have weapons, the FPD seized and hauled them away. The Klan never came back.
As shocking as the incident was, having been mere moments away from becoming an intense scene of physical violence, no one (other than those directly involved) knew about it.
“It was never publicized in the Bee, or any other media [when it happened],” Robinson says.
Surprise! Regulations, Regulations, and more Regulations
Visual displays of protesting Pride in Fresno dwindled down to the occasional religious loner with a sign or 2 in the years that followed. However, resistance to the parade had arrived through more subtle and political avenues.
In 2005, a lieutenant was assigned to oversee the committee’s application for their annual march permit who “had definite ties to a large church in town, and conservative members of city council,” states Robinson.
A new stipulation was suddenly and conveniently tacked on to their application requirements stating that the committee had to provide an exhaustive list of names for who would not only be in the parade march but who would also be attending. An impossible feat for an event that is free, and open to the public. The committee immediately contacted the Human Relations Commission whose purpose is to “Promote harmonious relations among the different cultures and people of Fresno. The HRC monitors discrimination and hate crimes, develops positive programs to address these issues, mediates disputes, and celebrates cultural diversity.” As stated on the Civil Rights Directory for the state of California via the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights website.
“About 50 of us with news cameras went down to meet with [the city] to talk about this… 2 of the city council members came in, the Lieutenant with his aides and his Captain were there… they grabbed me and ushered me in to shut everyone out the meeting,” Robinson says.
Again, the committee won the fight for their permit and successfully held their annual parade. In doing so they had also established to the City of Fresno that they would not go silently into the good night. But the pop-up surprise regulations and stipulations were long from over.
A new requirement for permit applications arrived in the early 2000s in the form of additional fees. In order for the organization to even apply, they’d have to submit a $378 application fee. Within the last 2 years, the City of Fresno decided to no longer allow ‘soft closures’ (allowing timed openings for pedestrian crossing) for the parade and instead required only ‘hard closures’ (absolutely no openings). This has jumped the event’s fees for blockades from $1,500 to $5,000 according to committee member Robinson. But these were just the beginning of the new stipulations.
Along with hard closures, the committee was then told that in order to apply they would need to acquire signatures of approval from every business and homeowner that could be inconvenienced by the parade, and it was an ‘all or nothing’ task as one failed signature could result in being denied the permit for the parade. Try as they might, the committee set forth on the task and were met by resistance as there were business owners and residents on Olive Ave who wouldn’t even speak to them. Struggling to meet the new requirement, the committee began to ask questions and soon found that their event, the Pride Parade and Festival, was the only one being held to the new regulations.
Frustrated by the unjust treatment, the committee took to the American Civil Liberties Union who determined that the new set of regulations placed on Fresno Pride Parade was an act of ‘Selective Enforcement’, which meant that a legitimate case could be filed against the city. A letter from an ACLU lawyer arrived at City Council stating, in short, that if they failed to grant the committee their permit, ACLU would take the City of Fresno to court. Robinson and the committee received their permit.
Still, surprise stipulations were not a thing of the past and the Pride committee faced, even more, hoops and hurdles to jump. In 2016, the week leading up to the event, just days before the parade, Risk Management stated that the event was required to insure each vendor booth at $100 per booth for up to 70 booths resulting in a potential $7,000 of added costs. Then, on the afternoon before the start of the event, on a Friday after normal business hours, Fresno Fire Department arrived insisting that the festival canopies be inspected before the city would approve their use. The large canopies provide refuge from the heat during the day’s festivities for not only guests, but also for performers, and the wide range of sound equipment used for the event. The situation concluded with the city allowing the use of the canopies but denying their use in the future within the very same area where the festival has been held for the past 27 years.
Fresno Rainbow Pride Parade and Festival is currently fundraising to cover additional costs of acquiring new materials to replace the use of canopies to help keep guests, performers, and equipment cool under the June sun. More information on this can be found at www.gofundme.com/one-step-starts-a-movement
Fresno Pride and the Split Support
Support of Pride in Fresno’s local government throughout the last 27 years has been consistently split with most of the support coming largely from the 2 council seats representing District 1 (north of Olive Ave) and District 3 (south of Olive Ave). It wasn’t until 2015 that an official proclamation declaring June 6 (the day of the event of that year) official Fresno Pride Parade and Festival Day was signed by all members of City Council and Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the first in Fresno Pride history. The last time a mayor signed a Pride proclamation was in 1991 by Mayor Karen Humphrey.
However, Fresno County Board of Supervisors has been an entirely different matter completely. “Fresno County has always ignored our existence,” states Robinson, “We’ve worked diligently year after year to receive some kind of acknowledgment.”
This year, Fresno Pride may receive the recognition they’re looking for from Sal Quintero who is rumored to sign the proclamation for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. It would be a monumental achievement for Fresno Pride whose initial response from the Board of Supervisors in the early 90s was “We don’t have any gay people in Fresno County”.
2017 Fresno Rainbow Pride Parade and Festival: What to Expect
The committee is moving forward with wonderful positivity despite the new regulations regarding the festival canopies and they are tackling the challenges with creative flair. To combat the heat, volunteers will be walking around with Super Soakers filled with ice-cold water to hose down anyone looking to cool off. Outdoor evaporative coolers and misting systems will also be present to help make attendees more comfortable. The performance area, typically covered by a canopy, will be dressed in the style of an outdoor cafe with tables, chairs, and large umbrellas spread throughout the space.
For all the kids, there will also be a Kid’s Area where the first 75 children who arrive will receive a ‘goodie bag’ containing a bottle of water, snack (non-peanut related for the sake of allergies), and a toy. The area will be complete with bounce houses and carnival style games.
The 27th annual Fresno Rainbow Pride Festival is very much a social gathering as it is a reminder of how Fresno Rainbow Pride and the Community has evolved. With spectacular performers, Unison dance party, beer garden, food, merchandise, informational booths and a children’s area, there’s something for everyone! Entry to the Festival, located on Fulton Ave is $5.00 11am-3pm.
So You Want to Get Involved?
Good. “Bring your talent, bring your ideas, come as you are and get involved,” says Robinson who goes on to state that no one on the committee ever had prior experience and the only thing they needed to get started was their passion. To find out more information about how you can help and get involved email the Fresno Pride planning committee at email@example.com
Visibility for the LGBTQ community is still a vital and essential part of the progression toward full equality. Each march is a statement that echoes out from the 1969 Stonewall Riots when LGBTQ people were still classified as illegal and they fought back against the establishment. It’s a reminder of where the community has been, where it’s going, and a message of solidarity that it’s never going back there again. Each new generation builds upon the work of the one before it, helping to ensure that those LGBTQ people who are just discovering themselves, or finding that they’re stuck in an unwelcome place, know that they are not alone.