In the spring of 2013, serving as Mayor of Porterville, California, Virginia Gurrola issued a proclamation declaring June, LGBT Pride month. Last week, she was removed as mayor for her courageous act.
Porterville, California is a city of about 60,000. It is snuggled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, about 150 miles north of Los Angeles. Wine country. We tend to think of California as liberal, but Porterville has long been a bastion of conservative thought.
The city is run by a five member elected council. The council appoints a mayor and a vice-mayor from its ranks, both of whom have always serve a two-year term. Porterville mayor is a largely ceremonial position: ribbon cuttings, photo ops, and issuing proclamations.
Apparently the city does a lot of proclaiming. There’s even a link on the city’s website encouraging residents to request a proclamation of their very own. So in the spring of this year, an LGBT group took the council up on their offer and asked for the following proclamation, naming June LGBT Pride month:
WHEREAS, June is LGBT Pride Month across the United States; and
WHEREAS, Porterville has a diverse LBGT community, which includes individuals from all walks of life; and
WHEREAS, the LGBT community in Porterville has organized dinners, and other activities to celebrate Pride throughout the year; and
WHEREAS, LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, and more than 1/3 of LGBT youths have attempted suicide and nine out of ten LGBT youths report harassment at school, and three-fifths report feeling unsafe at school; and
WHEREAS, High School students in Porterville have organized Gay-Straight Alliances to fight bullying, provide support, and encourage education to combat homophobia; and
WHEREAS, Porterville College has an organized PC Pride Club to fight bullying, provide support, and encourage education to combat homophobia; and
WHEREAS, being “out” is the most important action members of the LGBT community can engage in to provide role models, and support to young people who may be struggling with their sexual orientation.
NOW, THEREFORE, the City Council of the City of Porterville does hereby proclaim June 2013 as LGBT Pride Month in the City of Porterville and commend the LGBT Community for helping to raise awareness in our community.
To religious community’s shock and the LGBT community’s awe, Mayor Virginia Gurrola granted their request.
Then all hell broke lose.
One of the members of the Porterville City Council is a man named Brian Ward. Ward (right) is the youngest member of the council, a practicing Mormon, with five kids from a nine-year marriage. His day job, (all the council members are either retired or have a career job outside politics) is school psychologist; the kind of school psychologist you hope an LGBTQ kid never has to meet, because Brian Ward is also a raging homophobe.
Jim Reeves, a blogger from the Porterville area described Ward this way:
“Mr. Ward has been instrumental in every anti-gay action the Porterville City Council has had before it, since he was first elected in June of 2008.
Mr. Ward demonstrated a frustrating lack of understanding of LGBT issues. This is especially distressing, since he is by trade a psychologist at Burton School District. The nonsense he spoke from his council seat about the LGBT community, it’s goals and methodology, exposes a strong bias against, and ignorance of, important medical facts and social findings concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and adults.”
In 2008, California was in the midst of the Prop 8 fight that would (temporarily) take away the right to marry from the state’s same-sex couples. Councilman Brian Ward was excited about that fight, so excited he asked the Porterville council to pass this resolution in support of Prop 8:
WHEREAS, in 2000 over 61 percent of Californians voted in favor of Proposition 22 to reaffirm that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California; and
WHEREAS, because Proposition 22 language was not placed into the state Constitution when it was approved, four activist judges from San Francisco wrongly overturned the people’s vote; and
WHEREAS, in November 2008, Proposition 8 will provide California voters the opportunity to reverse the court’s decision and restore the will of the people by defining marriage as between a man and a woman in the state Constitution; and
WHEREAS, in health education classes, state law requires teachers to instruct children as young as kindergartens about marriage, and Proposition 8 protects our children from being taught in public schools that same-sex marriage is the same as traditional marriage; and
WHEREAS, Proposition 8 protects marriage as an essential institution of society and safeguards the important role of a traditional family. While death, divorce and other circumstances may prevent the ideal, the best situation for a child is to be raised by a married mother and father; and
WHEREAS, Proposition 8 contains the same 14 words that were previously approved by the voters of California: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” and by placing these words into the state Constitution, activist judges cannot strike them down as unconstitutional.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City Council of the City of Porterville hereby pledges support for Proposition 8 and urges Porterville voters to protect the sanctity of traditional marriage by voting yes on Proposition 8.
The council supported Ward’s resolution, making them the only location in the state to officially endorse Prop 8. The vote was unanimous. The only council member who voiced any reservation was the mayor pro-tem, Pete McCracken (right) who said he preferred that the council issue a proclamation or a letter of support of Prop 8, rather than a resolution; hardly a pro-LGBT stand, and when the council went with the resolution, he voted for it.
Pete McCracken is still a member of the council. In fact, he was serving as vice-mayor under Mayor Gurrola when she issued the Pride Month proclamation.
Councilman Brian Ward was livid. At the next council meeting, he immediately moved to rescind the mayor’s pride month proclamation and to substitute a resolution naming June 2013 as “A Month of Community Charity and Goodwill to All in Porterville”. For good measure, he also offered a plan to change the rules for granting proclamations, so that in the future, mayors must allow the council to vote on proclamations before they issue them.
Councilman Ward was so eager to get pride month support off the record, he made an attempt to circumvent the rules and have the council vote immediately. That plan was only stopped when the city attorney present in the gallery reminded the rest of the council members they were precluded from taking an immediate vote by something called the Brown Act. All Ward could do was to put a motion to discuss rescinding the LGBT proclamation onto the agenda for the next council meeting.
That notice gave both LGBT groups and anti-gay religious groups time to organize. The next council meeting designated an hour for public comment, and comment the public did. The Visalia Times-Delta reported many of the religious types waved bibles at Mayor Gurrola (right) while they screamed names at her. Two went so far to rant about homosexuals deserving death. I’m sure you get the flavor. It was that kind of crowd.
For their part, the LGBT supporters, who were said to have greatly outnumbered the anti-gay speakers, talked about what being recognized by their community meant to them, and begged the council not to take that recognition away. At one point Councilman Ward asked the pro-LGBT crowd why they deserved the “special consideration” of a proclamation. The crowd was said to shout back at him, “Because you hate us!”
At the end of that council meeting, Brian Ward vented more of his gay rage. He put on the next meeting’s agenda a motion to remove Virginia Gurrola as mayor, and Pete McCracken as vice-mayor. It was the first time in the history of Porterville that such a request has ever been made.
Over the next three council meetings, the battle over the LGBT proclamation was waged. June came and went without Porterville being vaporized by an angry god, or invaded by gay zombies, or whatever reaction it was Councilman Ward feared. On July 16, when June Pride Month was already in the rear view mirror, the council voted 3-2 to rescind the pride month resolution. Mayor Gurrola and Vice-Mayor Pete McCracken were the two no votes. It was the first time a Poterville proclamation has ever been renounced.
Last week, Brian Ward was finally able to get his vote on removing Gurrola and McCracken before the council. Unsurprisingly they again voted 3-2 to punish the mayor and vice-mayor by removing them from their ceremonial office, though not from the council, another Porterville first. In their places, the council chose Cameron Hamilton (right) to serve as mayor. In the small world department, Hamilton was serving as mayor when the council passed the Prop 8 declaration. Brian Ward will now serve as Porterville’s vice mayor.
The most absurd part of this story is that, just like many of the citizens who spoke in favor of rescinding the pride month proclamation claimed with a straight face that they were not anti-gay, Brian Ward and the new mayor Cameron Hamilton insist the removal of Mayor Gurrola and Vice-Mayor McCracken had nothing to do with the LGBT proclamation.
“If the LGBT community thinks that, then that’s just what they’re going to have to think,” Hamilton rudely told KFSN -TV.
(For his part, I suppose Brian Ward is a traditional Mormon whose wife pops out a baby every other year, so perhaps it’s true that he hates women in positions of power more than he hates gays?)
For her part, Virginia Gurrola did not back down in the face of bigotry. She told the Huffington Post:
“I looked at the proclamation, and thought that it was good, that we should welcome groups into our community, especially if they feel a need for that recognition. I still stand behind it.”
Virginia Gurrola did not suddenly become an LGBT advocate. There are no equality signs on her Facebook page. No articles about the council drama, no defense against the vitriol of Brian Ward – just photos of herself with her husband, still visibly in love, and pictures of her newborn grandbaby. She is not a woman with a mission, she was a woman following her conscience.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.