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A shift on gays in Bakersfield

Same-sex marriage still has little support but tolerance has grown, longtime residents say.

June 22, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — Jerry Worthy is as much a product of this city as the oil pulled from its ground.

He was born here 44 years ago. He attended its schools. Now an accountant, he owns a home in one of its newer subdivisions with his longtime partner, Gilbert Reyna, 46.

Both men say that despite the city's image as a bastion of intolerance, revived most recently by the Kern County clerk's refusal to perform same-sex marriages, for the most part they are left alone.

"We're just really boring," Worthy said. "We're not out there protesting. We have poker parties. We play Uno. We just look good doing it."

Across this city of 325,000, other gays and lesbians report much the same thing. Bakersfield in two decades has changed from a dusty oil and agriculture town where gays and lesbians were hounded to a sprawling metropolis where same-sex couples sip lattes at the local Starbucks.

Today gays and lesbians live, work and worship with little social fallout, longtime residents say.

"Everyone at my work knows, and they're fine with it," said Brian Hinkle, 33, who owns a small security firm. He was married Tuesday to Eric Hinkle, who took his last name when they registered as domestic partners in January.

Whitney Weddell, a leading gay rights advocate, says of Bakersfield: "There's a conservative element, and they are vocal. But in my experience, most people might be uncomfortable with the concept of gay people but they want to be fair."

Still, tolerating gays and lesbians is not the same as accepting them as equals, some noted. In 2000, 80% of Kern County voted to ban marriage between same-sex couples.

Though that conservatism is thought to have been diluted by an influx of 82,000 new residents from southern urban areas, many gays and lesbians believe the county's citizens will strongly favor a November ballot measure to amend the state Constitution that could overturn their new right to marry.

"I don't think people are ready for it," Worthy's partner, Reyna, said of gay marriage. "We're still an Okie town at our core. We're still Buck Owens."

The region's AM airwaves are saturated with right-wing pundits. Cowboys in Stetsons amble through the local Black Angus restaurant. And on hardscrabble fields west of Interstate 5, tens of thousands of oil derricks labor under a blast-furnace sky.

Bakersfield has more than 200 churches and a sizable fundamentalist Christian population.

Rosalyn Strode, head of Bakersfield Citizens Opposed to Lewdness and Obscenity, regularly sends e-mail alerts to more than 300 pastors and activists. Her group recently asked the Kern County Board of Supervisors to pass a local ordinance outlawing gay marriage -- a request met with little enthusiasm by county leaders, who agreed nonetheless to have the county's legal staff review it.

When county Clerk Ann Barnett announced this month that she and her staff would no longer officiate at weddings, local pastor Chad Vegas threatened to unseat any member of the county Board of Supervisors who opposed her. Vegas, a Kern High School District trustee, wrote in an e-mail that "nothing short of complete opposition to homosexual marriage will be tolerated!"

In the Bakersfield Californian newspaper, a few letter writers denounced him but others supported the pastor's right to speak his mind. For Jason Medlock, 33, that showed how tight a grip the churches have.

Medlock, a special education teacher, said he was active in a youth group and choir at the Canyon Assembly of God when he came out at 19. He was asked to step down from a worship team, he said, and then shunned by the congregation.

About 15 years ago, as he walked from one gay bar to another, he was pepper-sprayed by two young men in a pickup truck. A decade ago, he was asked to remove a rainbow-colored gay pride flag from his desk at an insurance office.

Now, he and his spouse, Del Baker, 47, live quietly in a tidy, two-bedroom home in southwest Bakersfield, where they are foster parents to two baby boys they hope to adopt. The couple married this week.

These days his neighbors exchange pleasantries as he and his partner take their babies for strolls down the block. Relationships don't move much beyond that, but that's fine with him, Medlock said: "I'm busy raising a family."

Daniel Nauman and his husband, Roland Vallerand, 64, said they also see evidence of change. As housing prices soared, Los Angeles-area residents were lured by affordable homes, bringing more points of view, Nauman said.

After their wedding last week, an aging security guard at Vallerand's office came up to congratulate him. "I think there are a lot of people in this town who feel the same way," Nauman said. "But they might be afraid to speak up."

Worthy and Reyna said they have found that as long as they don't hold hands or otherwise show affection for each other in public, things are fine. And they are OK with that.

On Tuesday, the couple came to Casablanca, the city's only gay bar, to toast those who had gotten married earlier in the day. For the 50 or so revelers, the bar's owner, Miguel Guzman, poured champagne and cut a cake decorated with a rainbow flag.

"I've heard that in the past people used to beat the patrons up when they left here," said Guzman, who took over the downtown lounge about five years ago. "We've never had a problem."


To see which counties in the state saw the biggest spikes in marriage licenses issued last week, go to map.


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