Pride Blues: Salinas City Hall Pride Flag Raises Old Wounds and New Challenges

By Eric Mora

This year my hometown raised a Pride flag at City Hall for the first time to commemorate Pride Month.

The importance of the gesture was not lost on me. As a board member for Salinas Valley Pride Celebrations, a local nonprofit which organizes the annual Salinas Pride and awards scholarships for LGBTQ+ students and allies, a central tenet of my work is the value of increasing LGBTQ+ visibility. Known more for its agricultural products, Salinas is not the first place people associate with thriving LGBTQ+ communities. Increasing LGBTQ+ visibility in places like Salinas is precisely about challenging people’s assumptions about what LGBTQ+ lives look like and where they reside. 

Queer visibility in Salinas is also about recognizing the unique challenges rural LGBTQ+ residents face. In a popular Facebook social group for Monterey County LGBTQ+ residents, group members routinely ask peers for recommendations for queer friendly businesses and service providers. The most common posts include requests for leads to LGBTQ+ friendly physicians, therapists, housemates and even barbers –underscoring just some of the anxieties rural LGBTQ+ residents experience. In 2019, California Rural Legal Assistance further shed light onto the realities of rural LGBTQ+ life through their Central Coast Transgender Needs Assessment. The results were sobering; 38% of respondents reported having an annual income of less than 10K a year; 26% of respondents cited no family acceptance; low educational achievement and a lack of healthcare access also continue to be challenges. And that’s without discussing the many problems COVID19 has amplified, with some Salinas Valley LGBTQ+ youth trapped in hostile family environments and vital gender-affirming surgeries postponed. 

With all of these challenges, what does a Pride flag at city hall really do for the Salinas LGBTQ+ community? 

At its best the Pride flag at Salinas City Hall represents a symbol of hope.  Small wins maintain momentum for larger changes and the City of Salinas’ gesture provides a level of hope for LGBTQ+ residents hungry for change, an indication that Salinas recognizes the LGBTQ+ community as part of their own. There is also the more pragmatic consideration of amplified reach. Salinas Valley Pride Celebrations and many of its ally LGBTQ+ serving partners are grassroots organizations. The City of Salinas provides access to new and wider audiences—the types of audiences that might be reticent to engage with Salinas Valley Pride Celebrations in the first place.

At its worst, Salinas’ decision to raise a Pride flag at city hall on Pride Month falls directly into larger national conversations about what it means to show support that is impactful and not simply performative. On this front, I question whether disingenuous motives dilute the city’s impact; even if the motives of the city’s action were disingenuous, does that make the hope people feel any less real? Perhaps more importantly, the Salinas City Hall Pride flag forces the local LGBTQ+ community to think about what it means to accept support from an imperfect ally. Personally, it has been a difficult process. How can I praise Salinas leadership for this decision when this same administration has championed countless actions that disproportionately harm low-income and ethnic communities such as SROs in school, participation in the deeply problematic reality tv show LIVE PD, and the piloting of automated red-light enforcement cameras throughout the city?

I experienced many mixed emotions but gratitude was not one of them. I recently learned about anchoring, a cognitive bias in which individuals rely heavily on a particular piece of information and make subsequent decisions with that initial piece of information in mind. The concept resonated deeply with me. Only in a context where I acknowledged my own dehumanization as an anchoring thought could I possibly thank someone for doing the bare minimum. For that reason, I refused to feel gratitude for the Pride flag at Salinas City Hall, not out of a sense of entitlement or as a means of downplaying the importance of the city’s gesture, but out of optimism for what we could achieve if we refused to see acceptance as an end goal but instead as the beginning point. I have since thought about how anchoring affected other parts of my life. After some reflection, I have pledged to stop thanking people for simply doing the right thing.

Local media outlets covered the Pride flag raising extensively. Against my better judgment, I followed the stories online and read some of the comments people left to try to gauge how others felt. Reactions were mixed. For every celebratory post, there was a post with tenuous biblical connections promising divine retaliation or a post which resorted to puerile name calling–years of taunting helped me ignore those comments. 

What struck a nerve was a comment questioning why the City of Salinas had not instead focused on raising a flag in support of farmworkers who are essential to our local economy. I agree that Salinas needs to value the farm working community—my parents have both worked in the fields; the very impetus for my family settling in Salinas was agriculture. What bothered me about the comment was the false idea that celebrating the LGBTQ+ community was somehow in opposition with celebrating the farmworker community. In anger, I thought about the many LGBTQ+ farm workers who this commenter blithely erased with his words, the every antithesis of our work to expand the definition LGBTQ+ lives. But most of all I resented the comment because, like the question of accepting the City’s support, I was once again being forced to choose between racial and economic solidarity or LGBTQ+ pride. Despite our growing recognition of intersectionality, many of us are routinely forced to compartmentalize our identities. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how much of myself I am willing to compromise in order to celebrate this local LGBTQ+ milestone and how many more times I will be forced to do so in the future. This week I have also thought about my many heroes who were also forced to look past the imperfections of their movement and societies and focus on their passion for their respective causes, from Dolores Huerta’s involvement in the labor movement, to bell hooks’s experience championing feminism while denouncing white feminists’ myopic views on race. But most of all, as I try to work through my emotions, I take refuge in Audre Lorde’s poem “Who Said It Was Simple”—whose title alone serves as a reality check—as I too “sit here wondering/ which me will survive/ all these liberations.”