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Unlikely debate on gay rights in California town

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PORTERVILLE, Calif. » The mayor of Porterville did not give it much thought when a local gay activist in this remote Central Valley farming town asked her to proclaim June a month of gay pride. But when the mayor, Virginia R. Gurrola, settled into her seat at City Hall to sign the proclamation, people were pouring out of the chambers and into the hallways, citing Scripture in opposition to what she had thought of as a simple ceremonial gesture. Her four fellow City Council members announced they would not join her in signing the document.

And as of last week, Gurrola was the former mayor of Porterville, voted out in a sudden reorganization meeting pushed by her dissenting council members. The council, over her objections, revoked the gay rights proclamation, replacing it with a more anodyne measure calling for "good will to all."

"This was nothing other than a desire to be inclusive as a community," Gurrola said. "I never dreamed of the controversy it would create."

"The proclamation was a proclamation," said Gurrola, 62, the mother of three sons (and grandmother to seven) who is a retired director of admissions at Porterville College. "We could have gone on from there. We could have gone on and continued with the business of the city."

Instead, the fight here has stretched over a summer, angering stunned public officials and residents in a community where the council is more typically embroiled in battles over sewer rates or a tire repair shop that wanted to open in a residential neighborhood.

The events in this small town stand as a reminder that at a time when many states are adopting gay marriage and other public support for gay rights has grown markedly, the issue is polarizing in many parts of the country. That is even the case in California, a state that, if increasingly Democratic, has a large swatch of deeply conservative regions.

"I refuse to marginalize them down to one identifier, their sexual persuasion," said Cameron J. Hamilton, who replaced Gurrola as mayor. "The gay proclamation is strictly about being gay when in reality everybody is much more than that."

Hamilton said that he had a "gay sister and a gay cousin in Hollywood" and that his opposition to this was different from when he championed a City Council resolution supporting Proposition 8, which in 2008 banned gay marriage before ultimately being overturned by the Supreme Court.

"Proposition 8 was a religious stance on my part, in support of traditional marriages," Hamilton said.

By every measure, California is, and has been, at the leading edge of the gay rights movement. The earliest modern gay liberation groups in the nation were created 60 years ago in San Francisco and Los Angeles — the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society.

Porterville, a largely Latino agrarian community with a population of 54,000, is in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, on the edge of the Sequoia National Forest, and surrounded by orange, lemon, pistachio and almond fields, as well as bobbing oil derricks. It is a town that has seen better days, with some buildings on its main streets abandoned.

The three council meetings devoted to this subject drew a large attendance of Mormons and members of the Church of the Nazarene, a powerful force here. Hamilton is a member of the church and its minister, Mark Pitcher, offered a 50-minute sermon against homosexual conduct in the middle of the debate, and posted it on the church’s website.

"Same-sex attraction is not a sin," Pitcher said. "What is the sin is acting upon that attraction. We’re all tempted but temptation does not become a sin in your life until you act on it."

In the course of his sermon, Pitcher expressed regret at what he said was rising pressure from society — including the news media and the entertainment industry — to press the acceptance of homosexuality.

He argued that gay men and lesbians tended to live shorter and unhappier lives, be more prone to disease and suicide, saying, "We are praying for them to come into a right and growing relationship with Jesus."

By contrast, the gay community, as much as there is one, appears minuscule. There are no gay bars — though a local biker bar has a gay night every Tuesday — and Brock Neeley, who asked Gurrola to sponsor the proclamation, became a bit of a local celebrity after he and his partner of 12 years, John Coffee, became the first same-sex couple in Tulare County to get married in 2008.

Ann Marie Wagstaff, the head of the language arts division at Porterville College and the faculty adviser to the campus gay group, said there were more gays and lesbians in Porterville than people thought, but they had been largely invisible here before the vote on Proposition 8.

"There was virtually no visibility for a long time until Prop 8," saying that gay groups arose in opposition to what the council did Proposition 8.

Coffee, 67, said he had expected some resistance when Neeley asked for the proclamation.

"To say I was severely disappointed in some of the folks would be an understatement," he said. "But was I surprised? No."

"I’ve lived here my whole life," Coffee said. "Anybody who thinks they are going to run me out of this town has another thing coming."

In California, the position of mayor is often rotated among the council members; Gurrola had served one year of what is typically a two-year cycle. Along with the gavel and the power to run meetings and issue proclamations, the mayor is paid more than the council members — $25 a meeting, compared with $20 a meeting.

Gurrola was ousted by a 3-to-2 vote.

"The mayor is supposed to be a spokesperson for the council and she made it a unilateral decision, knowing full well the council didn’t support her," Hamilton said. "My reasoning was, you’re out because of that."

Brian Ward, the council member who drafted the "good will for all" proclamation, said he viewed the original one as divisive and beyond the purview of the council.

"It’s setting one group off against another," he said. "I would oppose proclamations that pointed to religion or to race or to gender."

As a result, Porterville has been wracked by a season of intense debates and neighbor-versus-neighbor meetings in which people denounced homosexuality as a sin and demanded that Gurrola repent. Three gay rights activists were arrested for disrupting one of the meetings.

"I have never been more terrified," said Melissa McMurrey, who heads Gay Porterville, a gay rights organization. "There’s no words to describe what it feels like to hear people go up there and say we’re into bestiality, and having someone next to you saying, ‘Amen, Praise Jesus.’"

Hamilton, 55, said he, too, had "never experienced anything like this," though said that both sides were guilty of excess. For all that, the mayor said he thought the dispute was being portrayed in a way that was unfairly giving Porterville a bad name.

"It made it sound like we beat the hell out of them and would never embrace them – this redneck Central Valley desert town," he said. "There’s just no truth to that at all. We’re a very loving community."

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