Fresno GLBT Pride Parade a celebration of culture, history

1994: Hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan make their presence known at the fourth annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade in Fresno. KKK members showed up at Fresno’s first pride parade, held in 1991.
1994: Hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan make their presence known at the fourth annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade in Fresno. KKK members showed up at Fresno’s first pride parade, held in 1991. jwalker@fresnobee.com

Fresno is a wholly different place for gays and lesbians than it was in 1991. The year the community hosted its first Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade, it almost ended in a brawl with the Ku Klux Klan.

Today, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people don’t live with the same fear of being out. The Klan no longer shows up. The parade draws a wider diversity of Fresnans.

And this year, for the first time, Mayor Ashley Swearengin and all members of the City Council signed a proclamation declaring June 6 Fresno Pride Parade and Festival Day. Pride events take place in cities across the country and commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots between the gay community and police in New York City, which set the stage for the modern gay rights movement. The Fresno parade will take place Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The proclamation says the city recognizes the LGBT population and opposes any oppression and discrimination.

“It is only through a community’s unity that we can overcome injustice towards all groups of people,” it reads.

Karen Humphrey, who was mayor in 1991, signed a pride proclamation and attended the first parade, said organizer Jeffery Robinson. He said no mayor since has signed a proclamation — until this year.

The City Council presented the proclamation Thursday during its regular meeting.

“That’s an amazing historic moment for us,” Robinson said. He said this year’s proclamation, featuring a rainbow “City of Fresno” masthead, is the most progressive the council has ever issued.

But 25 parades ago, Robinson said, there was a backlash against the parade even by local LGBT leaders. Robinson, who runs the nonprofit Community Link, said that when the AIDS epidemic hit in the 1980s, it shoved the gay community back into the closet.

“Come 1991, the more progressive of us wanted to come back out and be more visible,” he said. “We wanted to come out in daylight and we wanted our community to celebrate that.”

Some felt the time was not right. Fresno, they said, was still too conservative. Organizers pushed on and at the end of the first festival, which attracted some 300 participants and 700 spectators, they deemed it a success.

Now called the GLBT Pride Parade and Festival, it brings in up to 5,000 people to the Tower District each year. This year’s theme is “Remembering Riots, Rebellion and Revolution.”

The theme brings Robinson back to 1991. Two dozen Klansmen showed up in white robes. A Bee article quoted their spokesman, Jim Cheney, saying, “We can’t hang them or tar and feather them anymore, but we can do other things.” Members of the group continued making appearances at the festival through 1998.

Changing times

Robinson said recent national events have made a local effect. The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and woman, lacked a rational basis. In April, the high court weighed additional arguments about same-sex marriage.

“Times are changing,” Robinson said. “I think kids help change parents’ attitudes about things. Harvey Milk used to say every gay person needs to come out of the closet. I think that has had a huge impact on all kinds of people.” Milk was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who was the nation’s first openly gay politician when he was assassinated in 1978.

Transgender people have also become more visible nationally. Actors and actresses such as Laverne Cox on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” have increased public understanding of transgender issues. And this week, the former Olympic decathlon champion previously known as Bruce Jenner revealed her new name, Caitlyn, and female gender.

Locally, transgender people have been involved in the pride parade for more than 10 years. The first events celebrated gays and lesbians, Robinson said. Bisexuals and transgender people were incorporated later.

Rachel Bowman, a transgender woman, has helped organize the parade and festival for 11 years. She formed a group with her transgender friends to march in the parade. They have continued every year since.

Bowman said many Fresno residents are resistant to change. Despite that, though, she said what it means to be transgender is at least starting to be discussed.

“We’ve always had the transgender part of the community very involved (in the parade),” she said. “We came in and kind of forced ourselves onto everybody and got them to consider that there was a “T” in LGBT in Fresno and what that meant. Many gays and lesbians really didn’t understand much about the T — they just knew it was part of the letters.”

Now too, she said, the broader community is starting to understand what that letter stands for.

Fight not over

When Fresno’s pride parade started, local and national gay rights leaders were focused on fighting the AIDS epidemic and caring for those who were sick. Robinson said the community came together around activism.

“The atmosphere nationally made it right for us here to push the boundaries,” he said. They confronted homophobia on the Fresno State campus and joined larger protests, including a march in Sacramento when then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed an anti-workplace discrimination bill.

Robinson said Fresno’s overall acceptance of LGBT community members has changed tremendously.

“It used to be an act of political rebellion to hold your boyfriend’s hand or kiss your lover in public,” he said. “It really was something we did out of a political statement. Now it’s an afterthought. With caution to being safe, we can really kind of go anywhere.”

Though attaining marriage equality is the biggest current national focus of gay rights, Robinson said it is not the solution to LGBT issues. There are many more to work toward, he said, such as attaining a national workplace discrimination act.

This year’s parade theme is a call to action.

“When things start going our way people have a tendency to start getting complacent,” he said. “People feel like they’ve reached the promised land, but they haven’t.”

Some have even questioned the need to continue organizing a pride parade, Robinson said. But he said the event is a celebration of LGBT culture and history.

The Stonewall activists are senior citizens now, he said. Others need to step up.

“We are nowhere close to the final end,” he said. “This world could be a much better place for all of us in many different ways.”