Central Coast Pride celebrates 20 years in downtown San Luis Obispo

Local band The Betrothed performs at Pride in the Plaza in Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo in 2015. Central Coast Pride, sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of the Central Coast, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Local band The Betrothed performs at Pride in the Plaza in Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo in 2015. Central Coast Pride, sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of the Central Coast, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Whenever Atascadero architect Dana Belmonte reflects on the progress the local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community has made in the past two decades, he sees a mix of triumphs and tragedies.

“We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” Belmonte said.

That sentiment is being echoed by many this week as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of the Central Coast celebrates the 20th anniversary of Central Coast Pride with a full schedule of events, including a drag show Friday, a performance by standup comedian Hal Sparks on Saturday and Sunday’s Pride in the Plaza festivities.

The anniversary comes at a time when the LGBT community is simultaneously celebrating the landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States and mourning the June 12 shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 victims dead — the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, debate is raging over North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,” which became law in March and requires transgender people to use public restrooms and changing facilities based on the sex on their birth certificates.

“We definitely have a lot to celebrate, but we also need to remember, especially in light of what happened in Orlando … there are still bigots out there,” GALA board President Daniel Taylor said. “There are still people who want to destroy us. This year, Pride (has) a defiant atmosphere of showing we’re not going to back down. We’re not going back into the closet. We’re not going to live our lives in fear.”

Origins of Pride

The tradition of gay pride events dates to 1970, when marches were held in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots that pitted members of New York City’s gay community against police.

Belmonte traced the origins of Central Coast Pride to the early 1980s, when GALA was formed.

The nonprofit organization discussed establishing a gay and lesbian resource center in 1981 at a public forum held at the Veterans Memorial Building in San Luis Obispo.

GALA invited the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to attend. But then-Supervisor Howard Mankins turned down the invitation, Belmonte said.

Belmonte quoted Mankins as saying: “It is disgusting to think that society even remotely accepts such groups.”

“With attitudes like that from a public official, we knew we had a long way to go,” Belmonte said.

GALA had mostly faded away by 1982, but it was reformed in 1988, he said.

In 1991, when Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a bill that would have guaranteed statewide protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, GALA members marched through downtown San Luis Obispo in support of a city gay rights ordinance.

The San Luis Obispo City Council voted 3-2 against adopting a nondiscrimination ordinance in 1992. (The city amended its municipal code to include sexual orientation discrimination in 1993.)

Two other incidents from that era stand out in Belmonte’s mind.

In 1993, GALA placed a banner reading, “June is Gay Pride Month” in Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo, only to have vandals tear it down. The group posted guards overnight to prevent its replacement from meeting a similar fate.

In 1994, 300 people turned out for a forum on homosexuality sponsored by a San Luis Obispo High School club.

Local formation

In 1996, the same year that the federal Defense of Marriage Act defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, GALA launched Central Coast Pride and opened the GALA Center in downtown San Luis Obispo.

Carl Hopkins, accounting assistant at United Staffing Associates in San Luis Obispo, served on the first Pride committee as vendor coordinator.

Central Coast Pride started out with a budget of just $3,000.

“It was such a small budget for such a large event,” Hopkins said.

This year, GALA will spend $50,000 on Pride festivities, Taylor said, with most of that going toward entertainment. Over the years, Pride has featured such high-profile performers as drag queen RuPaul, pop star Belinda Carlisle of The Go-Go’s and comedians Margaret Cho and Joan Rivers.

While about 1,500 people originally attended Pride in the Plaza, more than 5,000 people flocked to Mission Plaza last year. (Although Central Coast Pride is marketed toward the LGBT community, the majority of attendees are straight, Taylor said.)

“Every year it keeps growing into something greater and more powerful,” Taylor said.

“I think we have one of the best Prides,” Hopkins said. “I’ve gone to (Pride events in) L.A. and San Francisco, but I feel like San Luis Obispo’s is more family-oriented and community-based. It’s just very well-received.”

He said the original aim of Central Coast Pride was to promote awareness of the local LGBT community.

Now, he said, “The goal is to celebrate our lives on the Central Coast and our accomplishments in the community, to educate the community, demonstrate diversity and just (be) proud of who we are.”

Broadening the scope

In addition to marking achievements at home, Belmonte and Taylor said the LGBT community and its allies need to turn their attention abroad.

“Here in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, the LGBT community has made a lot of advancements,” said Taylor, a fourth-generation Arroyo Grande resident who works for his family business, Phelan & Taylor Produce in Oceano. “(But) there are parts of the world, whether it’s based on religion or culture, where homosexual life is criminal.”

“The big issue for us is to mobilize and spread what we know across the globe,” he said.

Belmonte, who recently marked eight years of marriage to his partner of 16 years, retired elementary school teacher Steve Click, agreed that the battle for gay rights is far from over.

“In so many ways, we want to be more than tolerated. We want to be embraced as equals,” Belmonte said.

Central Coast Pride

For more information about Central Coast Pride and a full schedule of events, visit www.slopride.com.

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