For the first time in Hollister, a town hall meeting was held the evening of Oct. 26 to encourage an open discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ) issues. County Supervisor and Board Chairman Robert Rivas and Supervisor Margie Barrios hosted the meeting. About two dozen community leaders, students and advocates participated in the discussion.

The meeting evolved as it progressed and covered a wide range of topics. Words, and their changing meanings, were particularly important to some, with some being labeled as “generational,” meaning they were not necessarily bad, but no longer appropriate. “Intolerance,” and “tolerant,” words written in the first draft of a proposed resolution being put forth by Barrios and Rivas, were particularly unacceptable to some. So was what some called the “negative tone” of the document.

Rivas told the audience that he became interested in LGBTQ issues after State Assembly Candidate Anna Caballero invited him to attend a symposium. He said that out of 60 people, he was the only one from San Benito County. The topic of discussion was what counties were doing to support the LGBTQ community.

“It was eye-opening to me,” Rivas said. “I learned about initiatives and about the steps these local governments and communities were taking to support LGBTQ populations, and when they came to me, I was a little embarrassed because we don’t do anything. It was a concern for me, and that’s why I met with Supervisor Barrios to plan this town hall.”

Barrios said she and Rivas asked one of the county counsels to research other possible resolutions that the county could use as a guide in drafting its own. She invited the audience to pick up a copy of the proposed resolution in the back of the room.

“We don’t want this to be all about the supervisors putting the resolution together,” Barrios said. “We want to make sure we reach out to you. If the wording is not what you believe it should be, give us some ideas. Supervisor Rivas and I won’t be making the final decision. We have to bring it before the rest of the board, but we certainly want to get your input. We want this to be a free-flowing meeting where you feel welcome to give us any ideas you deem important.”

Before opening the discussion to the audience, Barrios told them they could also pick up a letter from Hollister resident, Marty Richman, who had submitted it—in case he didn’t make it to the meeting—with his position on the resolution.

“Please look at his ideas, and if you want to draw from them, we welcome you,” she said.

Richman wrote in his letter that while he supports a resolution recognizing the need to discourage discrimination against the LGBTQ members of the community, he thought the resolution, as written, was, “out of step with rights and out of step with facts.”

He focused on the resolution paragraph that read: “WHEREAS, the LGBTQ members of the San Benito County community have made great contributions to the economy, business, leadership, diversity, arts and culture of this community;”

Richman said the paragraph was unnecessary and meaningless.

“Members of the LGBTQ should be free from discrimination because they are human beings who have not done anything wrong,” he wrote. “They would deserve that even if they never made any ‘contributions’ at all. You don’t have to ‘earn’ the right to non-discrimination.”

The second paragraph he had an issue with read: “WHEREAS, the Unites States has witnessed the potential results of intolerance evidenced by the June 12, 2016 shooting of an Orlando night club where 49 individuals were murdered and 53 others were injured;”

Richman responded: “That implies that the LGBTQ community was attacked based on their LGBTQ status. There is no evidence, none, that these murders were directed at the LGBTQ community because of their sexual orientation, while there is overwhelming evidence that this was a terrorist attack. There is no reason to build this resolution on a false premise. It’s cheap politics and it belittles the entitlement to non-discrimination to a single, falsely identified event.”

Rivas added that he wanted to know how the audience felt about the county and the services it does and does not offer. He wondered about high school students who struggle with LGBTQ issues.

“It was brought to my attention and I couldn’t answer the question on what kind of services does our county offer in the way of mental health,” he said.

Rebecca Conklin has taught English at San Benito High School for 13 years, and is in her 12th year as an advisor for the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) Club on campus. She said she has been working with LGBTQ youth her entire career. She said she had read the resolution and objected to the word, ‘tolerant.’

“A lot of my students, and I agree with them, there’s an issue with the word ‘tolerant,’ because it implies you’re putting up with someone,” Conklin said. “The words, ‘accepting’ or ‘acceptance’ is a little more welcoming. And when I looked at that last sentence, there’s a part of me that thought there’s a lot of negativity out there, and if we made it into a more positive statement, instead of saying, ‘discourages,’ flipping it around and saying, ‘the county board of supervisors embraces its LGBTQ community members.’”

Conklin said she has worked with students who have made the choice to “make the transition,” who have been required to get counseling, as well as medical attention.

“I scoured your website and there’s absolutely nothing,” she said to Barrios and Rivas. “You cannot query the word, ‘gay,’ or ‘LGBTQ’ and get any results. I know it’s not stating there is no acceptance; it’s just that the services are lacking. Students who need counseling, support, medical services, physiological services, there is not an option in San Benito County.”

Conkin said it’s difficult for youth to go to San Jose or elsewhere for help, and the lack of support in the county should be acknowledged.

Alan Yamamoto, director of San Benito County Behavioral Health, said he wanted it to be clear that his department is welcoming and recounted that when he first got into behavioral health 30 years ago, there was a book called “DSM” (Diagnostic Statistic Manual) that was used worldwide to determine a diagnoses for individuals. He said one diagnosis for homosexuality was an “identity disorder.”

“We’ve come a long ways in three decades,” he said. “We’re here to say we’re very open to provide support services. When I read words in this ordinance like ‘higher rates of suicide,’ ‘violence,’ ‘bullying,’ those are not psychologically or healthy experiences for anybody. I want to make it totally clear that those are normal experiences to be traumatized by people who treat you like that.”

Yamamoto said that if anyone has ideas for support groups they want, the department has a drop-in center downtown called Esperanza Center.

“The invitation is out there and we’re very supportive of the LGBTQ community,” he said.

Steve Reid, substance abuse program manager in the Behavioral Health Department, said he has worked with several people in the LGBTQ community. He said one of the coping methods that some of those who have gone through negative experiences use is substance abuse. Once they’ve gotten involved with the substance abuse services, he noted, they are also involved with mental health services.

“That way, they can get a full gambit of services to where all of the issues that are present are being addressed,” he said, and added that he is trying to expand the website so it will be found when someone is Googling for those services.

Cassandra Shaw-Martinez, who has worked at Behavioral Health for four years, said she had tried to start an adult LGBTQ group while doing her internship with the department, and was unsuccessful because she couldn’t identify anyone who was comfortable coming forward.

“It’s of a larger systems issue of people feeling comfortable in this community to identify as that,” she said. “We need to identify the population. How many there are and what their specific needs are in order to find out what additional services or support groups they can benefit from.”

Barrios asked if what Shaw-Martinez was suggesting was a survey. Shaw-Martinez said she runs an LGBTQ mental health youth group in Monterey County and an anonymous survey was conducted in the Monterey schools on how they identified themselves, whether they had been harassed, and what made them uncomfortable. She said that could be done in San Benito County to start collecting data.

Rivas asked if the county had ever done such an assessment. Louie Valdez, county analyst, said it had not. Yamamoto said his department could investigate how Monterey County conducted its survey. Barrios asked Reid how long it would take to update the website, whether it would be six months or a year. Reid said that even though he does not run the website, that timeframe was reasonable. He said he didn’t know if the LGBTQ community is referenced on the site. Yamamoto said it would be easy enough to add the appropriate content.

One member of the audience, Gregory, said he thought surveys would be a waste of money and there would be a lot of hate mail.

“I think it’s more of a farmers’ market, county fair, really interacting with people, versus sending out a survey and they send back hate mail,” he said. “There’s a lot to think about living in a small, conservative community. We need to take precautions.”

Nancy Abellera, who also works for Behavioral Health, said that while the Esperanza Center was part of Behavioral Health, it provides a different environment and could be used as a safe place for support groups. Barrios thought it a good idea and asked if the Behavioral Health Board needed to be brought in or whether the department could do it on its own. Yamamoto said they could go ahead, but it would be a good idea to bring the board in for the discussion.

“It might be fertile ground for more ideas, because this is not unique what I’m hearing from the LGBTQ population,” he said. “When we try to do outreach to the older adult population, they sometimes feel threatened to come out and receive mental health services in a clinic. There’s all kinds of risks you’re taking in doing that, like potentially losing their independent living situation when they’re getting up in years.”

Yamamoto said the older population did not want to come into a clinic, but were open to receiving information when it was brought to where they played Bingo.

“I’m not saying we need to do it that way with the LGBTQ population, but what I’m hearing is the LGBTQ population doesn’t want to come into a clinic and feel they’re coming in there for treatment,” he said.

Gregory commented that something simple could get things rolling.

“A simple thing like putting a flag pole on top of this building to fly the American flag, and during LGBTQ Awareness Month, in June, fly the gay pride flag,” he said. “That’s a good start and would send a great message. Twice, I and individuals, put together a pride float in the Horse and Saddle Show parade. We got booed and we got cheered, but you know what, we did it. Again, that whole institutionalized conversation is scary to a lot of people.”

He said there are more LGBTQ people living in the county than anyone could imagine. He said from the 2008 survey he helped conduct that there are 8,000 LGBTQ people and supporters locally.

“There are a lot of lesbians who live here. There are a lot of gay men who live here who are still in the closet,” he said. “We’re trying to get past that.”

Then he, more or less, put six teenagers on the spot by saying he would like to hear what they had to say. Barrios said that if they were uncomfortable talking before the group that they could write their comments and give them to her. One female student, though, agreed to speak.

 “My name is McKenzie, I’m the president of GSA, and it’s a really nice feeling walking into a classroom when every single desk is filled with either supporters or members of our community,” she said. “If we were to branch out and create this entire atmosphere that is accepting of all of us within the community and our supporters, we could have safe spaces. I don’t know what we would call it because some things can be off-putting or misleading in the way we word it. Wording is key in anything we try to put forward.”

McKenzie said that if it were possible for someone her age to walk into a room filled with people of all ages who were supportive, it would, “make my heart so happy just knowing I am accepted in this community.” She said she moved to Hollister from Morgan Hill and knows “something needs to change.”

“Whether it’s walking through the Farmers’ Market, holding my girlfriend’s hand and not feeling really stressed out because I’m doing it, or simply wearing a rainbow shirt that says, ‘equality’ on it to school,” she said. “I think if we were to branch out and show people that it’s definitely OK to be a part of our community, that would help so many people. Even adults who are still in the closet and don’t feel they’re able to be who they are within this town.”

Hollister City Councilman Raymond Friend, who was in the audience, with Councilwoman Mickie Luna seated across the aisle from him, said that if he was writing the ordinance, he would take all the negativity out of it. He said the Orlando incident did not need to be mentioned in it.

“The wording is important,” he said. “If we say we’re going to ‘tolerate’ it, are we saying we’re just putting up with it? The other thing is, I’m kind of embarrassed as a city leader that it’s 2016, and we’re just now starting to talk about this. Obviously, we’ve got an issue here that there are 3,500 people at a minimum in this town that are living ‘in the shadows’ because they haven’t heard anything from the city or county leaders.”

Barrios said it’s never too late to start, and something should have been done a long time ago, but something is being done now.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said to Friend. “We can adopt something and you can take the next step and take it to the city.”

“I don’t want it to be ‘you did it, so we’re going to follow you,’” Friend said. “It’s just time to have the conversation. The more of these town halls we have the more comfortable people will be to come with these ideas.”

There was some discussion about where such meetings could take place and Friend volunteered the Veterans’ Memorial Building downtown as a neutral location. Rivas commented that he had learned quite a lot from the discussion, and joked that he would never use the word ‘tolerance’ again.

Gregory said again that words are important and some are “generational.”

“I have a father who uses the word ‘tolerant,’ because he’s old-school,” he said. “He was born in the ‘40s, so he’s old.”

Friend quipped, “Let’s be tolerant of old.”

John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...