Contingents representing towns, politicians, nonprofits, places of worship, hospitals and tech companies—along with children, dogs, people pushing wheelchairs and walkers, and even those blowing bubbles—all marched, danced, sang, performed gymnastics and waved rainbow flags, before a crowd of thousands at the June 3 Sonoma County Pride Parade.
Witnessing this exuberant event, and the crowd that it brings to downtown Santa Rosa each year, it is hard to believe that it all started 36 years ago with a simple potluck picnic at Spring Lake, organized by an intrepid little group of gays and lesbians—the LGBTQ terminology was to come later—that called itself Forward Together.
That’s when the newly formed organization decided its first campaign would be to ask the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to declare a Gay Pride Week. Why not? It wouldn’t cost the county a penny, as one Forward Together founder, Magi Fedorka, recently pointed out. At the time, the county was already celebrating more frivolous things, like National Pickle Week.
But the supervisors refused to put a Pride Week on their agenda, so Forward Together declared its own Pride Week and threw itself a celebration. The group chose the concept of “pride” because it was non-threatening, unlike San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day, and it also countered the stigma that gay men were experiencing during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
So, people from various sectors of the gay and lesbian community brought their pride, their favorite dishes, their children and their dogs, to Jack Rabbit Meadows that happy day in June. Veterans Care, a gay veterans group, barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers, and people partied down, thumbing their noses at the county establishment that thought recognizing gays and lesbians was just going way too far.
Four years later, the Lesbian Voters Action Caucus brought the celebration to the streets of Santa Rosa. Without a permit, which required confining participants to the sidewalk, they held the county’s first ever Lesbian and Gay Pride March.
Finally, in 1992, a Pride Week resolution garnered the needed four-vote majority, and it became an official county celebration. But this was only the beginning of what has turned into two weeks of festivities that attract tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) locals and their friends, as well as tourists and travel writers. Interestingly, the former Forward Together movers and shakers have mixed emotions about how the celebration of Pride Week has evolved over the years into this much bigger, and corporate-funded, experience.
“The sense of community is gone,” said Tina Dugan, who has put together a timeline of LGBTQ activism in Sonoma County, and hosts a class about LGBTQ history through Sonoma County Junior College.
“It seemed more robust earlier on,” is how Janet Zagoria put it. As a photographer, she has chronicled the flow of Sonoma County LGBTQ activism over the years.
While bemoaning that Pride is no longer the political statement that it was in the “old days,” Fedorka admitted that, “There’s an inclusivity in today’s Pride.”
And that is the game changer that a younger generation of activists sees as a new approach to bringing its community into the mainstream of Sonoma County, while also honoring the lives of people who are a little different than the heterosexual and cisgender majority. Cisgender refers to identifying as the same gender a person is biologically, but has nothing to do with sexual orientation.
From this new perspective, Pride made a giant leap forward this year when the Latino organization, Los Cien, co-sponsored Fiesta al Cien, with the local organization Trans Life. The main organizers of the event, Ramon Meraz and Chase Overholt, are both gay men and members of the Los Cien board of directors. They beamed with joy as they described how bringing the LGBTQ community together with the larger Latino community is a dream come true.
“When I went to the state of the Latino community address eight or nine years ago,” Meraz said, “there was no data about LGBTQ people within the Latino community. They didn’t realize that the LGBTQ community is invisible within the Latino community, and the trans community is doubly invisible.”
So this year, under the new leadership of Herman G. Hernandez, a young Latino activist who grew up in Guerneville, the Los Cien board took the courageous step, not only of acknowledging its own LGBTQ people, but also embracing the larger LGBTQ community.
“Herman is so committed to diversity and social justice,” Meraz said.
“It’s a new era,” said Overholt, joking that he has made a pink suit for Hernandez, a straight-but-not-narrow guy, to wear as co-emcee of the event.
While the Santa Rosa celebrations have come and gone, there is still another opportunity to enjoy a Pride event this coming Saturday, June 10, in Windsor. Oh my God, Windsor, a bastion of mom-and-pop, two-kids-and-a-dog families, or so thought Spencer Blank when he moved there a couple of years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I knew Windsor was family-oriented,” said Blank, “but I have never felt discriminated against here. So, I wanted to throw a party that would embrace the whole community. I wanted to come out of the pandemic better than when I came in.”
Blank describes Windsor Pride as the “next generation of Pride festivals… a celebration of identity for all.” And the definition seems to fit because the week of activities, which will culminate June 10 with a celebration in Windsor’s town green, definitely attracts more than the LGBTQ community. Last year, which was the first time for Windsor Pride, it actually drew more allies than LGBTQ folks, Blank said. To make the inclusivity of the event clear to everyone, the Windsor Pride committee calls it “Love Wins in Windsor.”
Nico Reilly Turner, the 16-year-old president of Windsor High School’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance, agrees that love is abundant there. Turner has identified as non-binary since eighth grade. Non-binary means the person does not identify exclusively as male or female.
“A lot of my straight and cis friends come (to Windsor Pride) to have fun with me,” Turner said. “It feels nice that you don’t have to be part of the LGBTQ community to go to one of these events. We love and respect each other, and I’m glad we can all be together.”
Last year, a very special young lady was the junior grand marshal for Windsor Pride. According to her mother, Andrea, Dina Nofi realized at the age of three and a half that she is a girl and not the boy she was born as biologically.
“She came into the room and asked us, ‘When am I going to become a girl?’ We knew it was time for us to start educating ourselves,” said Andrea Nofi.
Dina Nofi and her mother marched last year in the Santa Rosa parade, as part of the Windsor contingent. And Saturday she can be found at her Girl Scout troop’s Windsor Pride booth, where her mom will be offering mom hugs, especially for LGBTQ children who might not get that kind of acceptance in their own homes. Dina Nofi is a member of a Girl Scout troop for LGBTQ, special needs and medically fragile girls.
How did Dina Nofi feel about being a seven-year-old openly transgender girl at the Windsor festival last year?
“Happy,” she said, to be honored for being her true self, and for the fun of wearing her crown and holding her flowers.