At the end of May, our country celebrated the life and impact made by Harvey Milk with the release of a postage stamp bearing his image. While still a tremendous move overall towards garnering respect for groundbreaking members of the LGBT community, the shockwave had special meaning to suburban city just north of Los Angeles. Santa Clarita is known by its residents (and not many else) for being a very conservative community. In recent years, clashes over political and social issues have made the division between progressive and conservative community members apparent. However, in an unprecedented event held to celebrate Harvey Milk and the LGBT community as a whole, the community came together for an afternoon barbecue and was met with virtually no adversity. The local chapter of PFLAG organized the Give ‘Em Hope family barbecue over the course of a year, culminating in the type of summertime fun you’d see in an ABC Family original movie. This massive change in the acceptance of LGBT community members was unexpected, to say the least, given the recent history of the city.
I met with Cheryl Bernstein, the driving force behind this event, to talk about how she made what seemed like the impossible happen.
When did you first have the idea to put together a community event like this? Was there something that triggered it?
Yes, there was. Last year, the Antelope Valley Pride Center invited the Saugus High School GSA to come to their welcoming prom. Saugus GSA reached out to PFLAG and asked if we would help them raise money. We were ecstatic. So, we helped them raise money (more than they asked for) and the first thing we did was everybody jumped up and down and said “we helped them raise money! Our kids are gonna go!” But then a second later we were like “why do we have to send our kids out of this valley to feel welcome?” We were really happy to do this, but our kids should not have to go out of this valley to go to the prom. So originally, we were going to to do a prom and then we realized we’re PFLAG, which is Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, we’re families, so we wanted to do a family event and the family even turned into a community barbecue.
Did you receive a lot of support from the community as a whole, or was it met with an adversity?
The community was amazing. So, my roots in this community of LGBT issues go back to the 2008 election and the Prop 8 campaign. At that time, the community was NOT welcoming and it was not a pretty sight. That was a really rough time. Fast-forward to now, going out into the community, and I have to tell you I was very nervous and I didn’t know how I would be received. And I joke, one day I decided I’m putting on my big-girl make-up and I got all dressed up and I thought “I’m going to go hit the auto mall.” That was an amazing experience. They were so welcoming and interested and no one was rude. That first experience invigorated me and took the fear away. So I was now fearless going out into the community and… one person wasn’t thrilled with me. But really, overwhelmingly, my stories are positive…. No one kicked me out of their store. I would go back every time to the kids once a month on our Sunday meeting with the kids and team leaders and I would relay the stories and the kids, you could see them getting so happy when they heard how welcoming the community was. It was a very big deal. I felt honored representing PFLAG in the community.
Do you think that is might be a turning point for the community in terms of opening more doors and leading to more acceptance?
I hope so, that was the point, but just from me going out in the community, I think it is turning on its own. I think we are definitely headed in the right direction and I think it’s important for, especially the kids to know, that they are more accepted and we are moving forward, whether we had our event or not. The interesting thing is that we were supported by three churches. I think we need to get that out into the community that churches do support what we’re doing that there is no one monolithic group that really is anti-gay or homophobic. It’s small pockets within and I think that is changing. I also think that we had this barbecue at the right time in history. I don’t think that the community would have been ready a couple of years ago. My favorite part of the barbecue was that there were so many families with little kids; that people weren’t afraid to bring their kids around “the gays.” The families were very welcoming and very open. We’re moving to that place where it’s going to be a non-issue.
Do you plan on holding a similar event in following years?
I keep getting asked that question. This took a lot of work. It was fun, I enjoyed every minute of it, but can you ask me that again in a couple of months? The community wants it, I get asked that a lot. I don’t believe in closing doors, but I’m a little tired. (She laughs.)
Though the support seemed effortless and adversity was nearly nonexistent, it hadn’t been a week before a news article showed up to knock everyone back into reality. While the justness of the actor being fired for his response to a homophobic heckler is debatable, the fact that someone who would shout derogatory terms unabashedly shows that there is a long way to go. However, it also shows that no longer are supporters of equal rights and respect being silenced by a “moral” majority. Harvey Milk continues to be proven correct when he said that “hope will never be silent.”