PALMDALE — The founder of a group called the Alliance Against Immoral Conduct in Public recently sponsored an urgent meeting at the Palmdale Cultural Center. It was to plan opposition to the Antelope Valley's first gay pride festival, scheduled for next month at the local fairgrounds.
Given that the valley is home to numerous fundamentalist Christian groups--including one that made the nationally distributed anti-gay video "The Gay Agenda"--and that local politicians have taken anti-gay rights stances on numerous occasions, it seemed the alliance would have little trouble finding an audience for its message.
"They're bringing in homosexuals from all over the country to attend this," John Fletcher, the group's founder, warned those attending the meeting.
He said the event could spread AIDS to local residents and that it would be the first step in a gay plan to gain control of local governments.
"Their intent is to make Lancaster a homosexual community," said Fletcher, 42, a resident of Quartz Hill. "They're trying to make Lancaster another West Hollywood or San Francisco."
Strong words. But in the rented room only 13 people had gathered to hear his message. And three of them were journalists.
The fact that a gay pride festival--already an annual event in numerous locales across the country--was going to be held locally certainly upset some residents, but given this area's reputation the outcry has been underwhelming.
Only nine people, including Fletcher, wrote protest letters to Antelope Valley Fairgrounds officials. Approximately another dozen criticized the event in letters to a local newspaper and a few aired their opposition in calls to local television and radio talk shows.
The relatively low level of protest was a surprise to the leaders of the fledgling group that organized the festival, the Antelope Valley Gay and Lesbian Alliance.
"I was really surprised that so few people turned out at (Fletcher's) meeting," said Todd Penland, president of AV GALA.
In fact, Penland was one of the non-journalists in attendance. He had gone just to observe and report back to his group.
"When I was on the radio with Mr. Fletcher, to hear him talk, he had hundreds of members in his organization," Penland said.
Fletcher said in an interview after the meeting that he was only mildly disappointed by the small turnout.
The father of 11 said his home computer contains the names of more than 300 people who support his organization. He said he urged these supporters not to attend the meeting because he wanted to reserve the room's 50 chairs for new members.
He vowed to publicize his next meeting more aggressively.
"Either enough people didn't get the word," he said, "or I don't have the support I think I have."
Addressing those who did attend, the former paramedic who now runs a private business, said: "I don't have anything against gays and lesbians. What I oppose is them coming out in public and parading it around.
"Have you ever seen two men French-kiss? I have. It's sickening. I don't want my children to see it."
Fletcher said he might try to stop the festival through a lawsuit that maintains it could spread the AIDS virus, even though medical experts have long maintained the disease cannot be transmitted by casual contact.
Penland dismissed Fletcher's fears as "completely irrational."
He said the festival's purpose is educational and cultural. Participants will not try to "force" the gay lifestyle on anyone, he said.
The event, scheduled for July 29-31, will feature gay-oriented historical exhibits, speakers, entertainment and souvenir sales. Its goal, Penland said, is to allow gay residents and visitors to celebrate their lifestyle and to help others learn more about gay issues.
Penland acknowledged that those who attend may see dancing and displays of affection involving people of the same sex.
"It's a private event with paid admission," Penland said. "People who would be offended by a positive representation of gay and lesbian life don't need to attend."
Nevertheless, Penland believes the heated discussion concerning the festival is healthy. "It makes people who are sitting on the fence think," he said. "It also exposes the people who have virulently anti-gay feelings to the rest of the community."
The state-regulated fairgrounds is rented regularly for events such as fashion shows, square dances, gem and mineral shows, horse shows, Cinco de Mayo festivals and the Lancaster Mayor's Prayer Breakfast.
Bruce Latta, general manager of the fairgrounds, said he told those who protested to him about the festival that the fairgrounds could not deny it space.
"We are legally bound as a public agency to treat all events equally," he said. "We can't discriminate."
Several city and church leaders who have made anti-gay statements said they will not try to stop the festival.