I learned on Wednesday night that religious bigot Lou Sheldon was bringing his anti-gay Traditional Values Coalition(TVC) to my hometown of Bakersfield the following Saturday. Our local State Senator, Roy Ashburn was to host a rally to promote an agenda against marriage equality, domestic partnerships, and gay & lesbian rights in general. Assemblyman Bill Maze and City Councilman Mike Maggard were also scheduled to speak, along with some local religious leaders.
And I had 48 hours to do something about it! I immediately put in calls to the top activists with our organization, Bakersfield LGBTQ, as well as to Marriage Equality California, and Dontamend.com. We sent out emails to everyone we had on our community e-list, and everyone emailed their personal address book. We called people who had never protested before. We enlisted our local straight allies form the ACLU, UU and UCC churches, as well as all the member LGBTQ organizations. We papered the local bars with fliers. We made signs. We ran like crazy to print up resource fliers. We held a special choir practice to learn a new protest song written by a local woman. In short, we used every one of those 48 hours to get ready.
And ready we were.
We began arriving at the public park of their rally at 8am, two hours ahead of the TVC rally start time. We brought along all the signs we could find, and rainbow flags we had begged and borrowed from a variety of places. We scoped out a set of tables, and noticed that there were a couple of people across the park setting up. Kirk S. intrepidly went over and asked what they were doing, and they told him they were doing the rally. Bingo! We were in the right place.
We set up camp a short distance away from their area. Shortly thereafter, they sent someone to tell us they had reserved the tables where we were becoming entrenched. We decided that we did not want to cause a scene over something so trivial, so we retreated to tables that were only a few feet away.
Our allies began trickling into the park by twos and threes, in families and friendship groups. For the next two hours we watched our groups swell to 10, then 25, then 70…and eventually we were 200 strong! Folks came from places like Fresno & Tulare, Ridgecrest & Boron, even one woman from Washington State. We must have done some good PR. Our crowd ranged in age from a few months old to senior citizens, form every walk of life. It was a beautiful sight to see.
In the meantime, we kept watching the TVC enclave, where apparently nervous staffers were on cell phones; we guessed they were trying to cajole their supporters out of their beds. At rally time 10am, they were all of 20 people, and a few straggled in later. We outnumbered them 10 to 1. I suspect that if we hadn’t shown up at all, Lou Sheldon would have been speaking to an empty park and some trees.
Before their rally began, we formed a circle around them, and began singing our songs. Tracy Weddell led us in her anthem, Promised Land, and Holly Near We Are a Gentle Loving People. When Senator Ashburn began speaking, we continued to sing for several minutes, which clearly upset him. He begged us to be quiet. We sang until we finished our songs, and when he called for the Pledge of Allegiance, we chimed in, and with the National Anthem as well. It must have been quite a moment for them to hear our beautiful voices rising in song as good patriotic Americans do.
The rally progressed, with various speakers taking the mike at different times. Maggard and Maze were no-shows. Early on, Chad Vega, a local School Board member and pastor of a church, as well as technically my boss, spoke, and he made the mistake of asking questions of us. I think he meant to be rhetorical, but this opened a floodgate of responses for the duration of the rally. From then on, there were cat calls, and group boos and hisses, although we did applaud when they made comments with which we could agree, which kept them noticeably off-balance. Each speaker grew more angry, with Lou Sheldon himself shouting venom and making accusations about gay and lesbian people that clearly showed how incredibly ignorant he is. At one point, he made some comments about how civilizations have fallen, referring to Rome, and it seemed so ludicrous that our whole crowd burst into paroxysms of laughter for several minutes. Sheldon’s face turned red as he realized what a buffoon he was appearing to be.
In all fairness, I have to admit that there were times when some of our members were a little over the top. Cops appeared in the park, but they did not approach us. They seemed to have been called by someone, and yet they simply sat some distance away and observed. Despite our group reactions and obvious enmity for TVC, we remained peaceful, if not altogether quiet. Apparently, we were well-behaved enough for the law, if not enough to be truly appreciated by the zealots we were confronting.
We all joined in to a spirited rendition of How Great Thou Art, sung by a very talented woman that we suspected was a drag queen. Many of our crowd are Christians, and once again I think our opponents had never considered that possibility, and it left them with little to say.
Once they finished speaking, Sheldon and most of the speakers quickly left the park. Ashburn walked around a bit, smiling condescendingly at us, trying to shake hands and asking for hugs from us. He was engaged several times, especially by some of our younger members, who demanded to know why he allied himself with divisiveness, and failed to represent his whole constituency. Our own Roy Hall, all of 15 years old, confronted him while grasping his mother’s hand, demanding to know why Ashburn was supporting laws that would destroy his family. Hall explained that he felt totally unprotected in a system that gave more rights to a father he has never known than to his mother’s partner who has helped raise him. Ashburn hemmed and hawed about the will of the people, but Roy was undaunted. He pushed on, saying it didn’t matter to him about popular opinion. Ashburn tried to give him a very bad lesson in democracy, but the crowd would have none of it, and corrected him several times about his assertion that democracy allows for the exclusion of certain people. (He’s so full of it.) In the end, Ashburn simply turned away. We remained in the park, pointedly on the ground of their rally, even as they were cleaning up and preparing to leave. We laughed, sang, and made light chatter, as if to send them a message: they haven’t bothered us today! As they sagged away in their cars, it was clear they had been totally unprepared for us, and they have no real answers for the questions about why they think they can create a society that excludes LGBTQ people. It’s easy for them to preach to the choir at rallies of homogenous religious zealots, but they cannot make their case when confronted with the reality of the law, the Constitution, and of course, people who actually think.
We cleaned up our area, making sure to leave the park clean and tidy, and spent another hour together at a local pizza place where we celebrated our ability to keep them off-center. We know that our celebration may be short-lived.
They’ll be back, and they’ll be better organized.
And so will we!