Pride in Chico
Locals share their stories of struggle and triumph in the spirit of Pride Weekend
This year’s Pride Weekend is poised to be the biggest and most visible Chico has ever had. Hosted by the Stonewall Alliance, Chico’s gay community center, it will be making its way from the outskirts of town—previously, it was held at places like California Park Pavilion or Manzanita Place—to downtown’s City Plaza.
“We not only want to make the statement that we are here, but for everyone else to come join us,” said Aydin Kennedy, one of the event’s organizers and a consultant for Stonewall Alliance.
Stonewall Alliance has been supporting the LGBTIQQA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning and Ally) community since the early ’90s, serving as a center for resources, education and assistance, and hosting events. The move this year to City Plaza marks a milestone for the center, and for the gay community in Chico.
“We want people who are normally around the downtown area and not associated with the LGBT community to have the option to come see what we’re all about and get to know us,” said Kennedy, who’s a transsexual. (He was profiled by Stacey Kennelly in the CN&R’s March 17 cover story, “Transcending gender.”)
In the spirit of Pride Weekend, the CN&R sat down with several people—two gay men, a lesbian and the parents of a lesbian—to talk about their lives and how they’ve changed over the years in Chico and Butte County. Has acceptance grown? Yes, seems to be the overwhelming answer. But while equality may be on the horizon, there is still much to be done to reach it.
“We should celebrate our lives and not have to do it quietly and ashamed,” Kennedy said. “We are celebrating this event in the same manner that other cultures celebrate their lives. It’s important to show that being scared, whether you’re part of the LGBT community or not, is a detriment to everyone in the community.”
As an openly gay elected official, Scott Gruendl has been considered a leader of the gay community in Chico for the better part of two decades. He has lived with an HIV-positive diagnosis for nearly as long.
As a result, Gruendl is no stranger to the courage it takes to come out and live with stigma and prejudice on a daily basis. For the city councilman and former mayor, Chico Pride Weekend represents that courage manifested on a larger scale, as many in the gay community feel comfortable enough to capture public attention in a big way.
“I don’t think anybody hardly recognizes this, but for me it’s a watershed moment,” he said. “We’re having the Pride in the plaza. For the first time in my 28 years here, we’ll be front and center in downtown Chico.”
Gruendl believes that such an event would not have succeeded a decade ago, that the general public would have been uncomfortable with a celebration of homosexuality in City Plaza. He now considers downtown, especially near the Chico State campus, a generally tolerant and accepting area, or an “island of liberals in a sea of conservatives.” He finds most people judge him based on his ideas and values. In fact, the majority of the threats and insults thrown his way are based on his political ideals rather than his sexual orientation.
That is not to say Chico is free of bigotry.
“I got this call one time, and I thought I knew the person at first,” he said. “They said, ‘You’re going to die from AIDS, you’re infested.’ I’m like ‘Yeah, no shit. Tell me something I don’t know.’ Turns out it was actually somebody trying to give me a hard time.”
Gruendl has come a long way from an uncertain young man mired in denial and self-loathing. Raised in a Catholic family, he did not come out to his parents until he was 30 years old. Now. 17 years later, he speaks freely and articulately about his sexuality and disease, and gives the impression that he’s someone who has been liberated from a heavy burden.
“For me, it’s about being as honest with myself and others as I can possibly be,” he said. “It’s about being a model for those who are too scared to come out.”
As a well-known public figure, Gruendl strives to be that model. He hopes closeted homosexuals will follow his example and find the courage to be themselves. During a speech this Saturday on Chico Pride Weekend, he will emphasize the importance of providing faces for the issues by being as outspoken and open as possible.
He expects a protest of some sort, and welcomes the possibility.
“We can demonstrate to people that if someone doesn’t share your point of view, that’s OK,” he said. “We’re not going to come beat you up over it.”
Ritch and Robyn North
Parents choosing love
Ritch and Robyn North have come a long way, thanks to their essential loving-kindness as people, but also thanks to their daughter Noelle.
Before Noelle, the youngest of their four children, came out to them about three years ago and they chose to embrace her and love her as she was, they knew little about homosexuality. As Ritch describes it, he envisioned all homosexuals to be like the outré characters wearing thongs and feather headdresses who march in San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade.
All that has changed. The Norths’ world has vastly expanded, and they are happier for it.
They’ve been married 30 years, but you can’t spend two minutes with them without realizing that time hasn’t diminished their love, and that the challenges in their lives have only made it deeper.
He’s a marriage and family therapist; she’s an operating-room nurse-manager at Oroville Hospital. Before Noelle came out to them at the age of 16, they were members of a conservative church in Oroville, opposed gay marriage and voted for Proposition 8 banning it. Now they attend a gay-affirming church, and shortly after Proposition 8 passed, Robyn traveled with Noelle to Washington, D.C., and marched in support of gay marriage. Where once they knew nobody who was openly homosexual, they now have several gay friends, and they regularly have dinner with a couple they’ve come to know through attendance at meetings of PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
“Our world has been enriched,” Robyn says.
Ritch says his therapy practice has deepened. “I used to think [homosexuality] was just about the sex,” he says. “Then I started seeing it was about relationships.” This hit home for him when he worked with his first homosexual clients, a lesbian couple, and realized their problems were much like those of a straight couple.
Still, there are deep differences. At PFLAG meetings, the Norths have come to understand the price so many homosexuals have paid for hiding and denying who they were, not because they wanted to do so, but because they believed society gave them no choice. Ritch said he was sad not only for them, but also because “for so many years I’ve been alive and not understood” the suffering they’ve felt.
The Norths are especially attuned to the pain gay kids feel, having seen it in their daughter. When they’ve learned of other families going through what they went through, they reach out to offer support in any way they can.
Their message? That it’s up to the parents to accept and love their kids no matter what. “These kids are going to live their lives,” Ritch said, “and we can be a part of it or not.”
Children whose parents reject them suffer unimaginable pain, Ritch said, and far too many of them commit suicide. “For a lot of parents, the choice is between accepting their kids or going to their funerals.”
Chico’s wild child
Deryl Northcote has the natural ability to draw a crowd, with his striking appearance—he currently has a shock of white hair atop an otherwise black mane—and penchant for the theatrical (he dresses in drag on occasion). He came out as a teenager in the early 1980s. Since then, he’s become somewhat of an icon in the Chico community. For the outspoken 45-year-old, that has brought both power and responsibility—as well as perspective.
“Things are different now,” said the Chico native during a recent walk from his salon, Ultra Beautician, near the Pageant Theatre to the Naked Lounge for a pick-me-up. He summed up the changes Chico’s experienced—in the ’80s, for example, there was a gay bar sort of tucked away at 900 Cherry St. It was a fun gathering place, but going there meant leaving in groups for fear of being jumped or suddenly, amidst a great party, watching a lit Molotov cocktail roll through the door. Now there is no gay bar in Chico—and that, my dear, is progress, Northcote insisted.
“Why do we need our own bar?” he asked. “We’re all just people—why can’t we all hang out at the same bars downtown?”
Northcote was barely 21 when he decided to take that leap—from the “dark corner” that was 900 Cherry St. straight into Duffy’s Tavern. Going out downtown as a gay man back then was risky, and he’s got the scars to prove it—he was once stabbed with a screwdriver by a woman who called him a fag.
These days, he still endures the name calling and the hushed whispers as he walks by. Northcote knows he’s judged first on his personal life and then on everything else—being a successful businessman (he’s celebrating 13 years Sept. 1), a local philanthropist, etc.
“I don’t hate people who hate gay people. I just think they’re uninformed,” he said.
In 1989, he started a local chapter of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Czaristic Dynasty, the oldest and largest gay organization in the world. Aside from being a place where likeminded folks can gather, it’s an all-volunteer nonprofit that hosts events to raise money for charity. In addition to causes that help the gay community, Northcote is also passionate about the equality of women, which he sees as directly tied to his own struggles.
“There’s a lot of misogyny in our society,” he said. “If women were equal to men, the whole gay marriage thing wouldn’t be an issue.”
When it comes down to it, equality is Northcote’s main message—but not “separate but equal,” “the same and equal.” He’s happy to see the Pride Weekend festival being held in downtown Chico this year. It’s been the willingness of popular downtown hangouts like Duffy’s and the Towne Lounge—where Northcote is hosting a “Black Ball” this Saturday (Aug. 28, 6 p.m.-close)—that make it possible for Pride Weekend to take place downtown, he said.
“I applaud the straight-owned businesses that took the financial risk to say, ‘[Bigotry’s] not allowed in our bar.’ Those are brave people,” he said. “We wouldn’t be downtown if it weren’t for them.”
—Meredith J. Graham
Leading future leaders
As an activist, Molly Heck knows being hopeful about the future of the gay-pride movement goes hand-in-hand with knowing the reality of a socially unjust world. The progress is hard to quantify, Heck said, but there’s a balance to be reached between optimism and realism.
“There are times when I see students, male students in fraternities, who are supportive of same-sex relationships, or Christians who realize it’s not sinful, and they make me hopeful,” Heck said. “But then I hear of a gay person getting a beer bottle thrown at them or I hear my students say ‘fag.’ That reminds me that there is still a lot of work to do.”
Heck became aware of her calling to be an activist when she took her first course at Chico State in Introduction to Women’s Studies upon transferring in 1997 from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. Since then, she has focused her energy on educating students and fighting for the rights of students who identify with different social groups.
“I got interested in lots of different movements and what communities and individuals can do toward changing partner violence, hate crimes and all those things,” Heck said of her initial interest.
An instructor in multicultural and gender studies and an active faculty member in the School of Social Work at Chico State, Heck said she wanted to be involved in creating a safe community for individuals of all different backgrounds and identifications. Her position as shelter director at Catalyst Domestic Violence Services and adviser to the Gender and Sexual-Equality Center has allowed her to become more involved in helping students and other individuals with equality in the Chico community, she said.
“What I find really important is helping students find their voice,” Heck said. “There are students that are so angered, so moved and so challenged about what they’re learning in classrooms about social injustice, that they have cried after class.”
The ability to help those individuals is what has made her experience with the Chico Pride movement so amazing, Heck said.
Heck currently lives in Chico with her partner, Renée, and their three dogs. She never planned to move back to Chico, after leaving to study and travel, she said, but her love for the community and having her family close has drawn her back to the beautiful City of Trees. The openness and love she has felt in return from the community has made her want to give back even more.
When it comes to the Pride Weekend event scheduled for the City Plaza, Heck said the location is as important as the people involved.
“I’m really stoked that it’s in downtown Chico this year,” Heck said. “I think it’s important that it’s visible and not tucked away like it has been the past few years. People can drive or walk by and see a festival that celebrates community.”
The movement needs voices from every section of the Chico community, Heck said. It is important to incorporate individuals who aren’t lesbian or gay because we are all part of the same society.
“It’s important to have an ally voice. It’s not just for people who identify as LBGTQ,” Heck said. “We are all a part of this community, and there is an inherent importance that this is about a group of people who are marginalized. They need to make a stand; however, you don’t have to be lesbian or gay to do that.”