Smaller CA cities raise the bar on celebrating Pride

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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The Progress Pride flag flies outside Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church. Photo: Courtesy Peter Cloven
The Progress Pride flag flies outside Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church. Photo: Courtesy Peter Cloven

After Sabine Martin initially came out as gay at the age of 12, her Mormon parents pulled her out of her public school and decided to homeschool her. The family also relocated from Concord, California to a trailer park in the Contra Costa County city of Clayton at the foot of Mt. Diablo.

"I had some harassment at the time, but I also had people who had my back," Martin recalled in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

Former Clayton resident Sabine Martin, as her drag persona, Queera Nightly, will ride in the Clayton Pride parade. Photo: Courtesy Sabine Martin  

Martin eventually connected with the Rainbow Community Center, the LGBTQ nonprofit service provider located in Concord. Through it she found a job, resources, and met with a therapist for the first time who was not Mormon.

"I would say I felt very isolated as a young queer person," recalled Martin, 24, who came out as transgender last year and recently started her social transition and began hormone therapy. "Through services like the RCC, I was able to find some support and representation in my community that I didn't have because I grew up so sheltered. I didn't know about trans people until being a part of RCC and really through drag and being immersed in the queer community."

Now living in Oakland with her older sister, who is a lesbian, and her sister's girlfriend, Martin works as an executive secretary at a nonprofit. She is also a singer, with her third album set for release this fall, and performs in drag as Queera Nightly, a riff on the name of English actress Keira Knightley.

This Saturday, June 25, Martin will be back in Clayton to help kick off the city's inaugural Pride parade. Her drag sister, Bella Aldama, who works for the LGBTQ center, invited her to participate in it.

Martin helps to raise money for the nonprofit, which is serving as the fiscal sponsor for the Clayton Pride organizing committee. While she told the B.A.R. she wasn't planning to perform her own songs at the parade, Martin will be in full drag on a float with music.

"We are leading the parade. Afterward, I will be around to take pictures," said Martin. "My boss, through the nonprofit, is helping me build the parade float. He is a contractor by trade."

Martin said she was "overjoyed" and "so happy" at being invited to kick off her former hometown's inaugural Pride parade.

"There is never going to be a first Pride parade in Clayton again," she noted. "It feels good to be part of a wave of progress when, for a long time, it felt like the LGBTQ community was not visible in Clayton."

Several years ago Dee Vieira, 60, who lived in Clayton the past 12 years, set about to change that by contacting city officials to request they fly the rainbow flag during June for Pride Month. When her son, who is now in his 30s, first came out to the family in 2015, Vieira began researching about families with children who come out as LGBTQ.

"I saw suicide rates were very high. It was alarming to me, and I felt I needed to do something," recalled Vieira, who serves on the board of the Rainbow center and this month "downsized" by moving with her husband to a smaller home in Oakland. "I had seen other communities were raising the flag and doing Pride proclamations."

It was reading B.A.R. stories that she first learned about the local LGBTQ community center and LGBTQ leaders to contact in her area. Her initial asks to members of the Clayton City Council to fly a Pride flag were turned down, and Vieira focused her attention to other priorities.

With Clayton and Danville the only cities in Contra Costa County not to mark Pride month in any way in 2019, Vieira mobilized to add her city to the list in 2020. In April that year, the five-person council voted unanimously not only to recognize Pride Month but also to fly Pride flags in June at City Hall, the town's library, and a downtown park, as the B.A.R. reported at the time.

"In 2021, we did it again and flew the Progress Pride flag in the three locations," recalled Vieira, who years ago marched in San Francisco's Pride parade with the PayPal contingent, as her husband worked for the company. "Then that led to me talking to a few other residents and saying wouldn't it be cool to have a Pride parade. And here we are, we are having a Pride parade in 2022."

Enthusiastic reaction
Reaction to the event, which kicks off at 10 a.m., has exceeded the organizing committee's expectations, said Vieira. It easily raised $15,000 to cover its expenses, and more than 450 people are expected to march. Another 400 people are expected to watch along the roughly four-block route down Main Street in Clayton.

"It is surreal for me. When I started this whole thing, I had no friends in Clayton. Now, I have a ton of friends," said Vieira, who hopes all three of her children, as she also has two adult daughters, will be able to attend the Pride parade.

Attendees are invited to picnic at the city's downtown park The Grove or dine in local restaurants. There will also be informational booths for local nonprofits and businesses, plus face painting for children.

"We are pleasantly surprised by the outpour of people wanting to be in the parade or setting up a table for their organizations," said Vieira, noting that the Pride event normally held in Concord hasn't taken place in-person since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Various local politicians and community groups have signed up to march in Clayton's parade. Some town dignitaries are planning to be part of as many as three or four different contingents, using golf carts each time to help ferry them back to the parade starting point.

Mayor Peter Cloven is one such multiple contingent participant. He will be riding in the parade with his wife and at least one of their two daughters — their eldest turns 19 that Saturday — then will be joining his fellow parishioners from the Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church to take part in its kazoo chorus contingent.

"I will take off that rainbow hat and put on another to march with the Clayton Business and Community Association," said Cloven, 57, elected to the council in 2020 and made mayor last December.

Also a member of the parade organizing committee, Cloven told the B.A.R. it is important that such Pride events happen in "small town America" due to there being a history of such places not fully embracing the concept of inclusion.

"We need to bring it to our children right now," said Cloven. "They need to feel comfortable in their own skin in their own hometown so they don't have to go somewhere else to feel comfortable."

He and his wife moved their family to Clayton in 2006 from Concord. An elder in charge of finance for his church the last six years, Cloven recalled how over that time the congregation has defiantly flown a Pride flag at a large monument near its entrance.

"We started flying it in January six years ago to show we are an inviting congregation and welcoming. Within three days, it was torn down," said Cloven, who would replace the flag each time it was desecrated. "It got ripped down and stolen over three-dozen times. The anger of seeing that flag being present during that time just surprised us."

Thus, Cloven recalled the "trepidation" he and others felt around the city first raising the Pride flag two years ago. Someone did steal the flag a few days after it was raised, said Cloven, but the town quickly replaced it. Since then there haven't been any more issues with the flag.

"At a certain point there is diminishing returns for hate," he said. "If you have a certain just-stick-to-it-ness, and every time it is taken down it goes back up, then it becomes too tiring to take it back down."

Throughout this June, as the town prepares to inaugurate its Pride parade, Coven said the only emotions have been "joy and relief," and "the confidence and love is palpable this year. It is winning over hate, and I love that."

Jonathan Lee, left, Mark Quady, and their son Owen Quady-Lee took part in Pride Ride Contra Costa in October 2021. It was organized by the Rainbow Community Center located in Concord. Photo: Courtesy Jonathan Lee  

Compelling change
For fellow parade organizer Jonathan Lee and his husband, Mark Quady, it is a compelling change from how they were received by a racist neighbor who flew a confederate flag and harassed the gay couple after they moved into Clayton the week before Thanksgiving in 2020. Lee, who is Asian American, told the B.A.R. his neighbors' harassment was likely rooted more in racism than homophobia.

"Ironically, the first gay Pride flag raising they had made a video of and posted it on YouTube. We saw that video when we were researching the town," recalled Lee. "I said to Mark it will be gay-friendly and safe for us to live there."

Their local newspaper reported on their situation, which led to an outpouring of support from other Clayton residents for the men and their son Owen Quady-Lee, who is now 9. The family stuck it out, rather than move out of town, and eventually their neighbors decided to leave.

"It made me realize this is not as bad as that one racist, homophobic neighbor encounter," said Lee, who first met Quady at the Cafe gay nightclub in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro district in 2001.

Small town
With roughly 4,000 households, and a population near 12,470, Clayton is the smallest place Lee has called home. He told the B.A.R. a cohort of longtime residents and leaders continue to resist change, writing in one letter they sent to every household that they didn't want the married men's "San Francisco and Berkeley agenda here."

"We get that kind of letter all the time, but we all know who is sending it. It is a bit ridiculous," said Lee. "I have never lived in a small town like that. But there are a lot of progressives and allies, and a lot of parents with queer kids. So that's, I think, the strength and beauty of the town."

Vieira was one of the first people who reached out to the couple, as did Cloven, who told the B.A.R. he tried to talk to their racist neighbors in order to broker a peace between them. Their interactions grew into friendships and eventually led to the group of residents who came together to mount the Pride parade.

"I think, in smaller towns especially, it sends a very powerful message to kids it is OK to be LGBTQIA+ and that they are loved and they are welcomed and they have support," said Lee, who helped organize a children's Pride art contest earlier this month. "This is a safe zone and a safe city."

At one point a debate was sparked by several people who questioned if the Pride event would be family-friendly or represented Clayton's "family values," said Lee. It led to a discussion among the organizers if they needed to label the parade as such, something Lee explained to the group would be counter to the very notion of it.

"We can't have one person or group dictate what family values or family-friendly is," he said. "To assume our Pride event does not meet family-friendly criteria ... is the cycle of bias and homophobia you want to break."

Lee noted, "We are beyond having to prove ourselves. I don't need to prove to anyone my family is a family and our values are our values."

The couple, now in their mid-40s, marched several times in San Francisco's Pride parade with the since-closed agency they adopted their son through when he was an infant and a toddler. They are decorating a vintage bus Quady owns to be the Clayton Pride committee's contingent to close out the town's parade.

"We are going to make that the Pride mobile and deck it out with balloons and a banner," said Lee.

The Windsor Pride contingent promoted its Love Wins in Windsor event at Sonoma County Pride earlier this month. Photo: Courtesy Spencer Blank  

Another Pride for wine country
In the Sonoma County city of Windsor residents are also coming together to host their first Pride event the same day as that of Clayton. The theme of the inaugural Windsor Pride Festival is "Love Wins in Windsor."

While Pride events in larger cities are mainly celebrations of their LGBTQ residents, ones held in smaller, more rural towns where there isn't as large of an LGBTQ community are more about fostering relationships between straight residents and their LGBTQ neighbors, said Spencer Blank, a gay man helping to organize Windsor's event.

"Small town Prides like mine or Clayton's actually are more about building of bridges," Blank told the B.A.R. "It is more about reaching out to the heteronormative majority that we wished had reached out to us in a certain way over the years."

Blank, 34, and his fiancé, Jon Ruiz, 37, moved to the wine country town between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg in 2020 from San Francisco a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic. They were looking for more space than what they had in their Mission Bay apartment in the city for themselves and their French bulldog, Brody, who is now 3 years old.

"We just found a gorgeous house we wanted to put an offer on, and it was accepted," recalled Blank, who has been with Ruiz since 2018.

A musician who grew up in San Mateo, Blank left for college on the East Coast then lived and performed in Italy and North Carolina as a pianist. He returned to the Bay Area at age 30 and produced shows at the gay bar Martuni's in San Francisco while working on the administrative staff for the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.

During their first Pride Month in Windsor two years ago, a lesbian couple had unofficially put up a rainbow Pride flag on the town green. By the next morning it had been torn down, recalled Blank.

The next year, on National Coming Out Day in October, a group of Windsor high school students marking the occasion were met by another group of students protesting it, recalled Blank. The town of 27,635 residents is split, he said, down the middle in terms of people being conservatives or liberals.

It now officially flies the Progress Pride flag at City Hall. And more residents are reaching out to welcome their LGBTQ neighbors, said Blank. For years, a Christian neighbor had shunned Blank and his partner. But earlier this month Blank happened to pass the man while they were both walking down the street.

"He said, 'We apologize for not letting you in when you first moved here.' And he said, 'We will be at the Pride event later in the month.' It signifies to me what small town Prides are about," said Blank. "Even if nobody from San Francisco comes — and I don't expect them to — Windsor's Pride is for them to know and kids from around the county to know this can happen in your neck of the woods too. It is the queer kids in your backyard as for why we do it."

Having joined the People for Parks Foundation, which puts on the annual Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Grove in Windsor, Blank started talking to his friends at the nonprofit in January about hosting a Pride event.

"I wanted to meet all the queer adults of Sonoma County," he joked. "At first we thought maybe we'd have a meet up at a winery then decided to go big."

Running from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday in the Town Green, the free Pride event will include a street festival and a lineup of musical acts. There will be various booths and food trucks for attendees to enjoy.

Kicking things off will be an all-student band from the School of Rock Santa Rosa led by local residents and queer-identifying parents Jake and Josh Walden, while the closing act is Oakland-based Prince tribute band The Purple Ones. Singer-songwriter Jeremy Lipsin, a gay native of Windsor, is also performing and has written a special song as the anthem for the Pride event called "Love Wins in Windsor. "

"This event is not even close to San Francisco Pride,' said Blank. "It is very much a music festival meets street fair meets kids zone with a sprinkling of rainbow dust over the top."

Organizers were able to raise $50,000 via sponsorships of various amounts to help cover their costs, while the city chipped in by discounting some of its fees. Due to Sonoma County Pride holding its event in downtown Santa Rosa the first Sunday of Pride Month, and not wanting to compete with Father's Day this year, the Windsor Pride committee opted for the last Saturday of the month so as not to compete with the larger Pride event being held the next day in San Francisco.

Next year, though, they are aiming to host their second Pride festival during Father's Day weekend. Blank hopes it will become a yearly feature of Windsor's calendar of public celebrations.

"In getting to know and wanting to continue to create a better life for our kids than we had growing up is why we decided to do this," Blank said of the Pride organizing committee. "It is really about the kids and non-queer community understanding we are here."

From the response the Pride event has received, Blank believes it has "electrified" the local community. Referring to the intensifying attacks against the LGBTQ community across the country, even in the Bay Area this month, and the rhetoric from conservatives who are trying to paint LGBTQ people as "groomers" children need to be protected from, Blank said Pride events are needed more than ever in cities of all sizes.

"We don't mean to convert you. We are also not pedophiles," he said. "We mean zero harm, and all we want to do is love and be loved. Until our queer children can do that, and until they can do it without fear, this event is needed."

Pride's a family affair
Helping to organize Clayton's Pride parade have been Holly and Matthew Tillman Jr., a married Black couple whose two daughters, Jordan, 18, and Jada, 15, are both bisexual. In 2020, Holly Tillman became the town's first African American city councilmember and is now serving as vice mayor.

"I better be at the parade, that is the goal," Tillman told the B.A.R. this month after recovering from her second bout of COVID.

The couple moved to Clayton over Labor Day weekend in 2003 from Pleasant Hill. While her husband grew up in Foster City, Holly Tillman is from Southern California; they met working for Wells Fargo shortly after she graduated from UCLA and relocated to the Bay Area in 1999.

Holly Tillman, 49, said she and her husband never experienced the blatant racism that Lee and Quady did from their neighbors in town. They had been subjected to racial epithets one time they stopped to pick up sandwiches by a group of inebriated men who also came into the shop and began shouting at the employees. When the couple asked them to stop haranguing the workers and stop spitting on the floor, the men called them the N-word.

But Tillman noted they could have lived elsewhere and not been Clayton residents. It wasn't until the family attended a Black Lives Matter rally in 2020 in the city's downtown and she heard her daughters speak about their experiences in school that she realized "not everything was hunky dory" for them growing up there.

It was also the first time she met roughly 40 other Black Clayton residents and heard them speak about not taking part in civic life because of the town's racist reputation within the county's African American community.

"A lot said, 'We didn't feel like coming out because people weren't very friendly.' So they stayed at home," recalled Tillman. "We had the complete opposite experience; I couldn't relate to that."

The racism revelations at the rally led her to seek her council seat, something her husband and friends had been pushing her to do for years. Until then, she preferred being active in her daughters' schools and athletic teams rather than politics.

Working with other town leaders, the Tillmans helped coordinate a series of online seminars for local residents to have frank discussion about race. Several focused specifically on race issues in the local schools.

Just as those efforts were aimed at fostering a more welcoming environment for people of color who live in Clayton, Holly Tillman hopes the Pride event sends a similar message of support to its LGBTQ residents. She plans to be in a convertible with her family at the start of the parade then will join the business association contingent and the organizing committee's one at the end of the parade.

"Knowing my kids get to grow up not only in a town but also an era where that is embraced and fine makes my heart happy," said Tillman. "Even if one child here in town knows they are accepted because we fly the flag in June, these kids need to know they are welcomed, they are loved, and you have a safe space."

This will be her family's first time marching in a Pride parade. They had planned to take part in San Francisco's in 2020 but the COVID pandemic led to its cancellation that June. She is hoping to see a strong turnout for Clayton's inaugural event so that LGBTQ youth, in particular, can visually see their community embraces them.

"Every child should have that; it breaks my heart some don't," she said. "I am so happy my children do."

Martin, the former Clayton resident, told the B.A.R. she wasn't sure if her parents, who are once again living in Concord, would come to see her in the Clayton Pride parade. When she told them she was trans last year, it had initially caused a rift in their relationship.

"When I came out as trans it was looking like I was going to be — I wouldn't say disowned — my dad's been helping me with school and essentially said he would no longer support me," recalled Martin, who expects to graduate this fall from San Jose State University with a degree in business administration with a concentration on entrepreneurship. "It took a lot of conversation in order to get to the point of them being OK. They are so much more comfortable after a year than when I came out."

Her sister, Emily Yarman, will be attending to promote her Neutral Massage and Wellness business based out of Walnut Creek. A massage therapist, Yarman will be offering discounts on massages and consultations.

The siblings are looking forward to promoting LGBTQ visibility and understanding, said Martin, particularly so LGBTQ youth growing up in and around Clayton have a better experience than they did as teenagers.

"It is crazy because growing up in the Mormon Church in a conservative household, we weren't exposed to queer people. Our parents really weren't either," noted Martin. "The only relationship we had with queer people was through really hateful propaganda. It really damaged our family and our relationship. We have had to work on unlearning that because it was so toxic."

Terri Denslow, 44, and her husband, Scott, 53, moved to Clayton in 2017 and soon became active in their new hometown. Terri Denslow currently chairs the city's planning commission and is a part of the Pride organizing committee.

The LGBTQ allies had reached out to Vieira to assist her in getting Clayton to fly the Pride flag two years ago. The trio then met with staff at the Rainbow LGBTQ center to seek their support for the Pride parade, since they had experience putting on their own events.

"We wanted Rainbow's help. We didn't know where to start," said Denslow. "We kind of kicked off the group Clayton Pride."

She told the B.A.R. she will be stepping down from the zoning oversight body as of July 1 but plans to remain involved with the Pride committee. As with Windsor's event, it is likely they will host the 2023 parade more in the middle of the month.

"Assuming we do this in the future, we will probably move it to earlier in June," she said.

After the experience that Lee and Quady went through, followed the next year by a racist incident involving a town deli that garnered a burst of media attention, Denslow hopes the Pride parade will help paint a more accurate picture of how the majority of Clayton residents get along and embrace diversity.

"This is exactly why events like this have to happen and why communities need to come together," she said. "One loud, angry person can't speak for a city or a neighborhood."

For more information about Windsor's Pride celebration, click here.

For more information about Clayton's Pride parade, click here.

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