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As a resident of Inland Empire, one of the most conservative religious and anti-gay areas of our wonderful state, I was thrilled when I heard that Equality California opened up a field office in Riverside earlier last year.
With already having offices in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, some were wondering who was going to be brave enough to come to our area to begin the challenge of opening up the hearts and minds of a population with strong and cemented convictions against equal rights for LGBT people.
Here in the Inland Empire, it is still politically correct to be blunt, open and up front about being anti-LGBT. Religious-based intolerance against LGBT people and their families is all too abundant and the local youth are the ones who suffer the most. I know this not only because I am a gay male living here, but also because I am a public school teacher and the PFLAG Temecula President. I hear the stories from the local youth and the blatant homophobia in my own staff lounge.
Last Tuesday, Equality California (EQCA) stepped up their game again in the Inland Empire, by holding a Marriage Roundtable for community members. The sent a loud message to the greater Inland Empire community that they want to hear our ideas on how they can help support our need to educate the closed minded community - one that is so different than our counterparts in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. PFLAG Temecula and another strong Inland Empire organization, Equality Inland Empire, were also present at the roundtable meeting.
Approximately 20 individuals showed up at Tuesday’s meeting, which was held at the EQCA office in Riverside. The group was made up of equal amounts of males and females and even several straight allies. I was thrilled to see someone who was sent by their church to voice their support for equality. He was the spokesperson for their church and shared ideas on how to move equality forward.
Another man, who identified as a straight, conservative republican, passionately spoke about how conservatives should be on the side of equal rights for LGBT people, if they are in fact a true conservative.
Another straight woman spoke up as a conservative Christian republican and voiced a similar stance - that LGBT persons deserve equal rights. She said she has been able to have successful and persuasive conversations with her fellow church friends to support equal rights.
Some input from the crowd was the need to reeducate the local public on who gay people are.
A young girl who has been volunteering with Equality California in Riverside shared how when canvassing, people she spoke to were in shock that she, was in fact, a lesbian.
A common response was, “You are a lesbian? You don’t look like a lesbian.” If we can show the public that gay people are not the stereotypical faces that our anti-gay and bigoted opposition like to paint, we can begin to have more persuasive conversations with some of the people who are still on the fence with the issue.
We must also share our stories with our friends, family and co-workers so they can begin to see why having equal rights means so much to us. If we can share with them that having equal marriage means the same thing to us as it means to them - commitment, companionship, love and family - we might be able to help them to better understand why equal marriage is so important.
Lastly, the group seemed to praise EQCA’s use of gay people in the last two commercials. They felt the commercials help to break the immediate image of the “bedroom” people get when they hear the word “gay.”
Another EQCA commercial focused on a young teen living with her two lesbian mothers. The group felt strongly that by showing commercials with gay parents and hearing from their children it helps educate the public that gay families have very similar lives as other American families, again minimizing the misconceptions and negative biases.
The highlight of the entire night was having EQCA Marriage Director, Marc Solomon present. He was able to put his inspirational and motivational skills to work.
After the roundtable discussion, I think everyone felt empowered and ready to begin taking on a larger role in moving equality forward.
Mr. Solomon discussed having a large Town Hall meeting in Temecula - one of the most conservative, religious and anti-gay areas of the Inland Empire - with the hopes of recharging the activism that was so strong during the Proposition 8 Campaign and to educate the community members who are still on the fence with the issue.
The Town Hall style event would be a collaborative effort working with PFLAG Temecula, where guest speakers would be invited and Inland Empire LGBT rights groups would attend to exhibit and network, creating a stronger sense of community in the area.
For those of you who have family or friends in the Inland Empire, or know someone who does, I challenge you to contact them. Tell them your stories. Tell them why having equal rights is important to you. If you are able to persuade them, ask them to have the same conversation with their families and friends.
Let’s learn from Harvey Milk. Come out to others when safe to do so and share your stories. I think 10 years from now, we are going to learn the same lesson - that this is what it takes to get us to equality in this great country.