Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

LGBTs mobilize in Modesto


Jeff Gianelli, left, and Keith Highiet at a rally indowntown Modesto earlier this year during the protest of Governor ArnoldSchwarzenegger's veto of the same-sex marriage bill.
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Modesto, a city of 200,000 people, sits amid a sea of conservative Republican-leaning cities and farming communities smack dab in the middle of the state's Central Valley. The corporate home to Gallo Wines and a gateway to Yosemite, the city is a two-hour drive from San Francisco and is fast becoming an exurb of the more liberal Bay Area.

The town's changing population is turning Modesto's otherwise red political designation into a more lavender shade on the cultural landscape. LGBTs who have grown up there are opting to remain in town and Bay Area transplants – derided by some locals as "bats" – are moving there for the cheaper housing. The population shift is bringing with it a burgeoning and increasingly visible LGBT community.

An estimated 25,000 LGBT people call the area home and a core group has mobilized to push for both political and social change. In the last 12 months a chapter of the statewide gay rights group Equality California has formed and a nine-member board is pushing to create the Stanislaus Pride Center.

Nearly 100 people rallied in downtown Modesto this fall to protest Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto of a gay marriage bill, and the local chapter of PFLAG – Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays – used their float in the Fourth of July Parade to push for marriage equality.

No gay district exists yet, but the town boosts three gay bars, the latest a Tiki-themed lounge that decided to court a gay clientele. A gay-owned coffee house and café called the Queen Bean opened in the heart of downtown Modesto, offering a friendly gathering place for LGBT and straight people alike.

In January, a new transgender group is set to meet for the first time. And in 2006 the pride center not only hopes to move into a vacant space in the downtown area and open its doors but also wants to hold Modesto's first Pride celebration.

"For the size of this city it is really unconscionable that there is no LGBT center," said Lisa Verigin, president of the pride center board, over lunch recently at the Queen Bean.

Verigin, 37, grew up in Escalon north of Modesto and in 2003 moved back to the area. She said she sensed a noticeable change in how the area views gay rights. During the veto protest, most passersby honked their horns or gave thumbs up, she said.

"People generally are more supportive and it is not as hostile an environment as I remember it being," she said.

A single lesbian, she nearly left for Los Angeles last fall to seek better employment and dating opportunities. But she decided to stay to help see the pride center become a reality and give other LGBT people a way to connect.

"When I moved back I had to do some sleuthing around to find out where or how do I connect with GLBT people. The first answer that came to my head was the bars," said Verigin. "I also heard about PFLAG and the HRC group meeting in Modesto, which evolved into the EQCA chapter last November. But I am not having coming out issues and I don't need a support group, so what are my options? I made the decision to stay and work on this instead of moving to L.A."

Keith Highiet, a Modesto native, made the same decision. He had planned to spend five years at the University of California at Irvine. But in 2001, with a year left until graduation, he decided to return to the Central Valley and work for his father's business, a scrap metal and recycling facility that's been in the Highiet family for the last 85 years.

His decision did not exactly elicit cries of joy from his parents. Their reaction, however, stemmed from more than just his not getting a college degree. The Highiets worried that their son would find it hard to meet a boyfriend in his hometown, let alone any semblance of a welcoming and supportive gay community.

"Because there is no visibility for the community, they are treated like second-class citizenry," said Keith's mother Leslie Highiet, a 40-year Modesto resident, whose son came out to her seven years ago.

Keith Highiet remained undeterred, despite the fact that the place he has called home all his life lacks a gay neighborhood and the only social life revolves around the Brave Bull and Mustang bars.

"You know you come back to Modesto and it is not like where I went to college. It looks like Modesto is a little bit behind the times on these kinds of things; there is a vacuum of activity for GLBT people," said Highiet, now 26. "We have a couple gay bars in town but it's not the most conducive place for meeting people or socializing or really even meeting someone you want to be with necessarily."

One night at the Brave Bull in 2002, however, he did meet someone, Jeff Gianelli, another Modesto native. A divorced man with a child, Gianelli eventually came out of the closet, and after living in San Francisco for a time, moved back home to be near his son. He, too, felt the town had changed since his youth.

"I don't feel afraid here anymore. In high school I was closeted," said Gianelli, 29, a paralegal. "Now, Keith and I can hold hands walking down the street and not have to worry about being bothered."

Gianelli and Highiet have become the local spokescouple for not only the same-sex marriage fight but also for the needs of the LGBT community. Gianelli serves as co-chair of the EQCA chapter and as vice president of the pride center board. Highiet acts as the center's chief financial officer, and along with his mom, is active

From left, Central Valley residents Leslie Highiet, JeffGianelli, and Lisa Verigin outside the Queen Bean coffee shop in Modesto.Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
in the PFLAG chapter.

The couple speaks to the local news media, writes op-eds and letters to the editor of the local newspapers, and is the chief proponent for creating a community center for the local LGBT community.

"The purpose to have a place is to really establish a presence in Modesto not only for GLBT people to see for themselves and own it for themselves but also the general population at large. We have a large, under-informed population in Modesto that has only stereotypical views of what GLBT people are. They don't see that most GLBT people are like any other person," said Highiet, whose mom serves as the center's board secretary. "Those stereotypes will persist unless we not only come out of the closet but come out with a physical location to say we are here, we are just like you, and we want to live in peace and harmony with you."

Leslie Highiet, 58, said she got involved with the center project because she knows not every parent in town is accepting of their LGBT children. While playing golf with a woman she recently met, she disclosed the fact she has a gay son and spoke about the center.

"She was like, 'You don't go around telling people that?' She said, 'I have a gay son but have never told anyone,'" recalled Highiet. "Her son is 37 and lives in San Francisco. He comes home for the holidays but doesn't bring his partner because he doesn't feel welcome here. I just felt so sorry for her; people here are just very afraid of what other people are going to think. I see the center as a way to educate the entire community."

Lisa Jo Neary, 57, a transgender lesbian, feels right at home in Modesto. A job transfer brought her to town last November, and Neary said she jumped at the opportunity to leave Florida.

"California is a much friendlier state for transsexuals than Florida. We have legal rights in California. We can be refused housing, accommodations, jobs, even be fired from jobs in Florida. A lot of people don't realize how bad it is in most of the country," said Neary.

Yet compared to Gainesville, where she had been living and helped form a transgender group at the pride center there, Neary finds Modesto to be lacking socially, especially for transgender people.

"Really, the only thing is the bars. I do find the online stuff is a lot less here in California than it is in Florida," said Neary, who through the pride center and two FTMs she met is launching a bimonthly transgender group next year. "It is a peer support type group where people can introduce themselves, talk and discuss issues, and look for experience, strength and hope."

The group is currently looking for a space to meet, a problem that wouldn't exist if the town already had a pride center, noted Neary. But having a central space does more than provide meeting rooms, she said.

"There needs to be something community supported to serve as a focal point for events or for creating a presence at local things. At any festival or event [in Florida] the pride center always had a booth. It put the LGBT community in front of people in a positive way," said Neary. "No one [in Modesto] really does know that the gay community is as large as it is out here. Having a center helps the general population see us as people instead of a preference they don't have."

The emergence of a strong and visible gay community in the Central Valley also will be key next year as LGBT groups court voters in their fight against conservative antigay groups who plan to use the ballot box to restrict marriage in California and repeal domestic partner benefits. Up and down the state's inland areas LGBT people are organizing and replicating what has already begun to bloom in Modesto.

Jean Adams, 32, her female partner and their daughter left Mountain View on the Peninsula three years ago to buy a house in Auburn, a small town in Placer County at the edge of the Sierra Foothills 35 miles northeast of Sacramento. The bisexual couple discovered that among their conservative neighbors lived other same-sex couples who had left the Bay Area to find cheaper housing and raise their kids.

Adams recently joined EQCA as its field organizer for Northern California to help organize LGBT people in the area and introduce them to their communities. For many of the longtime residents, it is the first time they have met gay people.

"We are gathering people together and helping them come out of the closet to their community," said Adams.

With no gay bars, community centers, or other ways for LGBT people to meet, Adams said EQCA serves not only to bring people together politically but socially as well. She hopes to duplicate what is happening in Modesto in her area of the state. In doing so, Adams thinks her neighbors' positions on gay rights can be swayed.

"The way I think we are going to reach people is with that family connection and explaining how these laws are strengthening our family," she said. "If they are taken away then our family unit is basically destroyed."

Next week: A look at plans to open a gay center in Modesto.

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