Where Flying the Pride Flag Wasn’t So Simple

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California today

Thursday: The debate over flying the Pride flag in the Central Valley.

Jill Cowan

June 24, 2021

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The State Capitol in Sacramento is illuminated to celebrate Pride Month.
Credit...Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee, via Associated Press

Good morning.

Across much of California, you might not blink at a Pride flag flying outside a home, business or civic building. A proclamation honoring Pride Month by elected officials? Usually not breaking news.

But there are places in the state where the raising of the rainbow flag has become, like so many things, a source of partisan political conflict.

That surprised Jewel Hurtado, a 22-year-old City Council member in the Fresno County hamlet of Kingsburg, who in May proposed that the city recognize Pride Month with a proclamation and by flying the flag.

“My story isn’t any different from anyone else’s in the Central Valley — that’s why I brought this Pride proclamation to the table,” Hurtado, who identifies as bisexual, told me. “I know these experiences and lived struggles.”

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Credit...City of Kingsburg

And while Hurtado has gotten used to pushback for her initiatives as a young, Latina progressive in a shifting region increasingly seen as a political battleground — she helped campaign for Senator Bernie Sanders during his presidential race — she was taken aback this time.

“I did not expect this to be on the news,” she said. The proposal failed.

The episode also caught the attention of Dr. Carole Goldsmith, the president of Fresno City College, about 24 miles northwest of Kingsburg, where Hurtado is set to graduate this week.

“I thought, ‘That’s one of our students,’” Goldsmith told me.

Goldsmith is the first openly gay president of the college, which, she said, was the first community college in the state — a vast system that has more than two million students at 116 colleges. The system does not grant admission based on grades or other academic requirements as the California state universities do.

For Goldsmith, that means drawing on her own history, growing up in the Central Valley and, she says, “feeling othered,” to make the school welcoming to all.

“I know what it’s like to feel like people hate you because of who you are,” she said. The Pride flag, she said, “serves as a symbol of hope and inclusion.”

So she talked with fellow education leaders and members of the State Center Community College District’s board, who passed a resolution encouraging all of its schools to raise the flag.

Fresno City College held a ceremony to do just that, for the first time in its history, on June 4.

At the ceremony, Hurtado spoke about her experiences. So did Goldsmith, who spoke of being kicked out of her house for a few months during her senior year of high school.

“A lot of hurtful things were said,” she recalled to me this week.

In the audience that day was Fresno’s mayor, Jerry Dyer, a Republican and former police chief.

At that moment, Dyer was embroiled in a controversy over his suggestion that the Pride flag fly at a nearby plaza instead of City Hall, because, as he wrote in a Facebook post, it had “the potential to alienate those who do not support that particular cause.”

L.G.B.T.Q. community members, including Goldsmith, saw that proposal as a half measure that denied their full humanity.

“What I ended up learning as I spoke with the L.G.B.T.Q. community is that it was offensive,” he told me this week.

He asked Goldsmith if she would mind if he attended the Fresno City College event.

“Story after story — it broke my heart,” he said. “I cried for most of the ceremony.” Not long after, Dyer, who is open about his born-again Christian faith, spoke with L.G.B.T.Q.-affirming clergy.

“I cried through most of that, too,” Dyer said.

And so, he reversed course.

On June 11, the Pride flag flew over Fresno’s City Hall for the first time.

Dyer said that he’s been accused of allowing political considerations to motivate his change of heart.

“I’m hoping that leaders — regardless of their political status or their religious views — will recognize that there are populations within our community that feel excluded and left out and not represented,” he said. “It’s so important that we as elected leaders listen.”

Hurtado, the Kingsburg council member, said she was encouraged to know that her words helped move the mayor.

And she hopes that the shift in perspective is lasting.

“The way I see it is he’s fulfilling a campaign promise to make ‘One Fresno,’” she said. “And I hope he continues to do it.”

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Credit...Pacific Legal Foundation

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Credit...Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

Pride Month is a good time to reflect on how language has evolved over decades to reflect identity. One example: Dr. Carole Goldsmith of Fresno City College, who is 56, said she’s only recently begun identifying as queer, when she is “feeling particularly powerful.”

The term was once exclusively derogatory.

And over the last year, reckonings over racism have prompted discussions about how to talk about race and ethnicity more accurately and with nuance.

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