Salinas' slow coming out
by Seth Hemmelgarn
The city of Salinas, about two hours south of San Francisco, is home to an increasingly visible LGBT population. Last year saw the first-ever Salinas Valley Pride Parade, and another one is being planned for this year. A chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is taking shape, and the nearby town of Watsonville will have its first Pride event this year.
Then there's Franco's Norma Jean's, a Castroville gay bar that's packed every Saturday night.
"People are becoming more visible because society is changing," said Lisa Cisneros, a lawyer and the Pride Law Fellow at Proyecto Poderoso – "Powerful Project" – the collaborative effort by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., which works to improve legal services for low-income LGBT people in rural California.
Cisneros credits the state's anti-discrimination laws, as well as TV shows such as Will & Grace, for helping to bring about change.
Cisneros, 28, is a lesbian who grew up in Salinas but left when she was 18 to attend UC Berkeley's law school, Boalt Hall. She returned to Salinas last year.
"I think we still have a ways to go, but what's heartening since I left as a teen is that there are so many more people who are visible, out, and willing to come together and build community and organize a stronger support network for LGBT people in Salinas," Cisneros said. "I think this is happening throughout rural California and probably throughout the country."
According to 2006 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, between 66 percent and 77 percent of the city's population – about 141,000 people – are Latino. According to data from the secretary of state's office, there are about 90 domestic partner couples in the city. According to the Urban Institute, Salinas ranks number nine among metropolitan areas with the highest concentrations of Hispanic same-sex couples among all households. And the Santa Cruz-Watsonville area ranks number nine in terms of same-sex couples among Hispanic households. People in Salinas, where agriculture is a major industry, said the stereotype of Latinos being less tolerant of homosexuality is inaccurate.
"There are a lot of assumptions about how hospitable the Latino community is or isn't" toward LGBTs, Cisneros said. "It's very damaging when people assume Latino communities are going to be hostile to LGBT communities."
Salinas resident Maria Fortes, 27, wrote in an e-mail, "The stereotype that Latinos are more heterosexist than other ethnic groups is completely inaccurate. It's racist and based on the assumption that Latinos are conservative and/or religiously zealous. That's just not the case. My family has been quite supportive, whether or not they 'agree' with my 'choice.' In my experience, I have noticed that the families of my white, queer friends have more difficulty with their orientation."
Luciano Zamora, 23, moved with his family to Salinas in 1992 from Mexico. Zamora acknowledged that because his parents are Mexican, he didn't think their reaction to his being gay would be good.
Indeed, Zamora said when he did come out, his parents didn't understand it, and stopped talking to him for two or three weeks. But after he had a talk with them and told them "this is who I am," they understood.
Zamora said, "I think everybody of every ethnic group" goes through the fear of being rejected by their parents when they find out their child is gay.
Jeannie Oland, 37, and Bernie Medina, 38, are planning to marry in San Francisco. The two were high school sweethearts and have been together for almost 20 years.
Oland, who attributes people coming out more at least partially to urbanization, said Salinas "doesn't have that 'everybody knows everybody' feeling anymore." The changes have allowed for new ideas and new ways of thinking, she said.
It can still be a hard place to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, though.
The lack of acceptance can show up as violence, especially where people work, Cisneros said. "A disturbing number of my cases involve violence at the workplace," she said.
Oland, who teaches middle school, and Medina, who teaches high school, worry about people finding out about their sexual orientation.
"The principal knows and the people that I work with know," Medina said. "It's just that ... the district and the community are not very open for teachers to be out."
While Medina and Oland worry about being out, some students Medina sees at school apparently aren't. She said kids hold hands and kiss in public, and she said some girls and boys have come out to her.
"Kids now are a lot more advanced in knowing who they are," Medina said.
But as Cisneros said, there's still a ways to go.
"There is a lot of heterosexism in Salinas," wrote Fortes, who usually identifies as lesbian "because the general public becomes fearful when I use terms such as dyke or queer."
"It's a conservative city," she wrote. "Most opposition I meet occurs in body language, 'disapproving' looks or lack of eye contact – mostly non-verbal. However, I have come across verbal discrimination. That was painful and left me in tears. It was during a meeting I had with a local government official on the subject of the first Salinas Valley Pride Parade. This person kept using terms like 'lifestyle,' 'preference,' and 'choice, when referring to the queer community. It affected me so because it was coming from a local leader – someone who was called to work for the well-being of all the people.