For West Sacramento mayor, stop signs trump sexuality
Six months ago, West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon threw a curve into his State of the City address by announcing that he was gay. What’s more, his coming-out was the subject of a documentary program for the gay-oriented cable channel Logo. Those who’ve gone through it know that coming out is a process.
If Cabaldon’s experience in West Sacramento is any barometer, most citizens are far more concerned with stop signs, sprawl and smart growth than they are with the mayor’s sexual orientation.
“I was surprised and very moved by the reaction of people,” Cabaldon said. He credits the particular way that he told his story, highlighting “my personal life, or rather the lack thereof, and the choices I had made because of my desire to serve.
“They got that I had cut my life in half,” Cabaldon said. While most people might have understood what he went through on an intellectual level, the responses were far more emotional than he’d anticipated.
Some of West Sacramento’s Republicans made a point of disavowing the national GOP’s positions on gays and lesbians. “They seemed to need to reaffirm for themselves that they were not hateful people, that the national agenda was not theirs,” he said.
But it wasn’t all roses. Cabaldon also heard from constituents who weren’t thrilled—and a few who were outraged—about his decision to come out. “I got the nasty notes in the mail and the calls. There were some protesters,” he said.
A more subtle form of homophobia also surfaced. Cabaldon described those responses as coming from people “who write letters to the editor of the local paper that somehow find the way to put ‘childless’ in front of my name at every opportunity, which is pretty transparent code.”
Ironically, Cabaldon said that he was protested by members of a local Baptist church that he’d previously assisted. According to the mayor, the Russian Baptist Church, part of the Bryte neighborhood for a generation, had outgrown its space to the extent that “parking and such was getting to be a problem in the neighborhood.”
The church approached the city about acquiring some city property—a spot on Sacramento Avenue at Jefferson Boulevard. Cabaldon said the city agreed to assist the church with the acquisition of the property. “I was at the groundbreaking and then was asked to speak at the dedication,” he said.
But after he came out, church members weren’t quite as welcoming. “Protesters—from this church and others—say that I’m promoting homosexuality and kids and others are ‘turning’ because they want to be like me,” Cabaldon said, with a bemused shrug. “I haven’t even been out promoting homosexuality for me, let alone for thousands of others.”
The senior pastor for the church was in Russia as this story went to press. A church secretary confirmed that the mayor had spoken at the dedication but would not comment on any protests.
But Cabaldon thinks it’s a mistake to focus on the people who have been upset. “Forget the protesters,” he said. “Compared to the backlash over a stop sign in the wrong location, their response is not all that far out of proportion.”
He doesn’t want to be “Pollyanna-ish” in his judgment about the success of his coming-out process. What he really wanted to do, he said, was to treat his community with respect.
“I’d been dealing with it for a long time,” Cabaldon said. “If I struggled, surely they would struggle.” He believes that his coming out is as much a process for his city as it is for him and that it would be both disrespectful and unfair not to give West Sacramentans an opportunity to work through it.
He trusts that his attempt to treat his community respectfully through the process will be rewarded when he stands for his fifth term as mayor in November’s election.
Cabaldon’s opponent is Mary Lasell, a lifelong West Sacramentan and self-described “Broderick girl.” She agrees with him on the city’s needs—to foster a sense of unity and to grow without losing the city’s rich and diverse character—but disagrees strongly on how to go about that. “I’m giving people an option,” she said.
She doesn’t think that his coming out is an issue that voters will care about. She is, however, a little upset with some of Cabaldon’s public remarks. “He thinks we’re bigots,” she said, “and we are not.”
Lasell pointed to a Sacramento Bee article that quoted Cabaldon’s coming-out speech: “The pressure and the stigma and the all-too-casual bigotry in this town made it painfully clear when I first ran for office that I could either serve this community, or I could be a gay man, but I could not be both.” That statement, she said, is proof that Cabaldon underestimates their community.
“Every family has their interesting family members,” she said. “We live side by side with people, no matter what, and we seem to have managed all these years.”
That sort of attitude in West Sacramento is essentially what Cabaldon has counted on, and it seems to have paid off. He described the variety of e-mails and letters he’s received “from residents, from city employees. Some of them were parents of gay people. Some were from people who were going to come out because they thought, ‘If he did it, so can I.’”
Cabaldon said those messages produced a feeling similar to the one he gets from walking onto Raley Field, the first major city project he had a hand in creating. “It makes me feel that something I chose to do helped in a meaningful way.”