Home » Systems of Knowledge » “Love Thy Neighbor?” – a look into the expression of Christian fundamentalism in California’s farmland and its effects on the area’s queer youth

“Love Thy Neighbor?” – a look into the expression of Christian fundamentalism in California’s farmland and its effects on the area’s queer youth

WELCOME TO TULARE COUNTY, CA!
“Growing up gay” in Tulare County, California is extremely challenging.  From negative rhetoric and dialogues heard throughout the community to explicit acts of bullying and violence – sometimes resulting in death, most commonly suicide – queer[1] youth face an extraordinarily difficult adolescence.  Aside from being an extremely conservative and “traditional” farming community, Tulare County is nestled amongst the Sierra Nevada foothills in what is known as California’s “Bible belt.”  The unique and extreme expression of Christianity makes life immensely more difficult for anyone who is considered “different” – especially the “gay” or queer community and most specifically its youth who are just coming into their own, personal identity and trying to navigate how they exist and where they fit in the world and their community.

https://maps.google.com/maps?q=tulare+county&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&channel=fflb&ie=UTF-8&ei=VhWhUpb2LMLqoATU1oLIDQ&ved=0CAoQ_AUoAg

[Tulare County, CA – map/location]


ON THE AREA…

Tulare County is a rural area – heavy in agricultural production – with a very conservative population.  On top of that, it is a fairly poor community, with 23% of the residents below the poverty line, the median household income around $43,851,[2] and a 15% unemployment rate[3].  With resources sparse and the population strikingly undereducated (only 13% of Tulare County residents ages 25+ have a Bachelor’s Degree[4]), it is not difficult to imagine the competition built into the culture – almost primitive, with a survival of the fittest mentality.  Additionally, with a grim reality such as this, many residents turn to religion[5] and the nuclear family ideal for community and strength as a way to cope with the everyday trials of life.  When someone, or a group such as the LGBTQ community, is seen to threaten this way of life, they tend to be met not just with resistance, but with direct confrontation.


EXPLICIT DISCRIMINATION

If the Prop 8 trial back in 2008 was any kind of indication of how the queer community fairs in regard to their acceptance by the larger society, they do not fit in well.  Statements such as, “They should go back in their closets and stay off our streets,”[6] demonstrate the majority opinion on the mere existence of queer individuals, and the fact that Porterville, a town in Tulare County, was the only town in the entire state of California to publicly endorse Proposition 8 – the measure to define marriage as valid only between a man and a woman – implies that alternative lifestyles are not just frowned upon, but explicitly condemned.  The latter was so significant in the community that one of the notable points the Wikipedia page for Porterville, California recognizes is the ruling, explaining:

“During the November 2008 Prop 8 election campaign, Porterville’s City Council was the only City Council in all of California that passed a Resolution in favor of Prop 8. The Resolution urged voters to act on behalf of the Council’s personal, religious, and political interests…Porterville, Tulare County voters voted over 75% in favor of Prop 8, among the highest levels in the State of California, during the election[7].”


NEWEST BATTLEGROUND

[support for Mayor Gurrola]

[support for Mayor Gurrola]

The fact that Porterville, a town in Tulare County, was the only town in the entire state of California to publicly endorse the measure, as well as the same town to have recently made national news for ousting the mayor after an attempt to proclaim June 2013 LGBTQ Pride Month implies that alternative lifestyles are not just frowned upon, but explicitly condemned.


SOCIAL LOCATION

I began to realize that my sexuality might be a bit different than what was expected at about 14.  Both times I “came out of the closet,” I was pulled out, kicking and screaming – and crying.  I was still processing all of this myself, convinced I was a Christian and that God would hate me, and yet I was being accosted and accused on all fronts – by parents, by friends, by peers, by religious mentors.  By the end of my freshman year at one high school my mother decided it would be best for me to attend another school for the remainder of my high school career, in order to “make a fresh start, meet some new [straight] friends.”  I went, and I also went back inside “the closet” and hid.  A year later, my mother pulled me out again, having found the “proof” in text messages between myself and my (female) high school sweetheart – and she was less than pleased.  She threw up five times when I did not deny her accusations.  She cried, and screamed, and prayed for my redemption, before locking herself in her bedroom overnight to process her devastation.  Phrases like “gay conversion therapy” were thrown around freely yet with all sincerity.  After 15 years, she decided that it would be best if I went to live with my father in a neighboring town, because I ‘couldn’t be in the relationship I was in or live under her roof.’  I knew her “faith,” she said, and most of the town seemed on board with her decision.  People I had known since I was a young child started treating me as though I had the plague.  Through the years, as I began to find the small supportive community that does exist in Tulare County, I also began to recognize that my experience was not isolated, and far from the most extreme.  I had found a passion for exposing the truth – the truth of the lives of queer youth growing up in the conservative, rural, California farmland – in the hope that it might (and due to some preliminary research on my part does) offer an intimate portrait of lives that remain silenced and stigmatized in the larger community due to cultural systems and prevailing assumptions of moral value – without conforming to those same societal valuations.


RESEARCH

Majoring in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies allowed me the opportunity to further research this unique population and the popular religious expression in the community.  While beginning the initial phases of my thesis research in the fall of 2012, I found what I felt to be inadequate search results for scholarly information on growing up queer in rural areas, specifically in California’s “Bible Belt” towns, and how the expression of Christian fundamentalism effects youths with regard to their identity formation – which is an area where I would like to see more research done.  That being said, I believe that one way to ensure that the story of this, and most, community/ies is told honestly and accurately is to have the community tell the story themselves whenever possible, and anthropology and ethnography are disciplines which strive to do just that, by allowing the space for difference, attempting to suspend presuppositions, and encouraging the chorus of many voices.

As one might imagine, the literature on what life is like for queer youth growing up in Tulare County is even fewer and farther between.  Even more elusive is information regarding whether or not religious fundamentalism plays any role in their identity formation and coming out process.  In fact, the only testimonies I found on the topic were first-hand accounts and narratives from queer youth who actually grew up in Tulare County.  During a routine Google search on the subject, the only pages of note were two “Gay [insert city name here]” websites (Porterville and Visalia) and the site for the Tulare and Kings Counties’ PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter.  The other sites that came up on the first page of results were therapist listings, shedding light on how the area responds to this matter – with therapy, most oftentimes, “corrective” therapy.  One interesting article from www.SFGate.com examined why so many Tulare County gay couples opt to raise children there, but even this article focused on gay parents, gay adults, as opposed to gay youth[8].  Their voices remain unheard.


PERSONAL NARRATIVES

In order to aid in these voices being heard, and the experiences of queer individuals acknowledged, I began fieldwork research during the fall of 2012, studying fifteen individuals, ages 18-24, who grew up in Tulare County, some of whom continue to live there.  These participants identify as queer in some way and spoke about their relationships with Tulare County, its population, and Christianity’s expression in the area.  The term “youth” is used a bit leniently, as all of the participants are over 18 years of age, though the focus of the research asked them to think back to their youth, to the decade(s) prior, and recall the experiences they had growing up and figuring out who they are/wanted to be.  The participants range from high school students to professionals within the community, each having their own unique background and experiences with sexuality, religious affiliation, and relationship with the region.  A very small selection of quotes are presented below, and for access to the larger body of research, please contact: obennett@mills.edu.

On coming out: “I always felt that the religious rhetoric speaking out against homosexuality was malicious.  As for affecting my identity or coming out process, [this rhetoric] has made me have to be aware of whom I speak to about my sexuality (according to my knowledge of their religious practice) and has ultimately, I believe, caused me to push away from religion and mention of God because of the way I now associate organized religion with these abuses.”

On presentation: “I still to this day get many disgusted looks when I am just walking around shopping, with or without my girlfriend. It has been very tough to pursue a normal life and blend in for myself, even though I have grown up in this area. I feel like an outsider because of my ‘boyish’ clothing and hairstyle that I have chosen for myself. Mothers often shield their daughters away from standing near me whenever I go out in public, as if I have some kind of disease that can be spread to them.”

On their religious affiliation: “…as it pertains to church, I was taught homosexuality was a sin.  To this day, despite my good deeds, I still feel like I am eternally damned to a life of fiery hell because the person I fall in love with has the same anatomy.  It creates occasional anxiety and questioning of one self.”

“The first church that I had went to made me feel like an outcast and outsider, always sitting by myself in church like I was a disease, so I stopped going.  The second one didn’t speak too kindly about the gays, so I didn’t feel like I had a place there, and their words hurt too much.  So, as a result to all this, I’m not religious, nor will I ever will be and whoever tries to shove religion down my throat again, I will calmly walk away and never speak to you again.”

On response from the community: “I have heard I am going to hell, been compared to a pedophile, and accused of bestiality.  [I have been] called an abomination. I’ve been told that the Bible says that homosexuals should be put to death. I have been told that it is immoral to raise children. That is just to name a few.”


COMMUNITY BUILDING AMIDST THE CHAOS
While a few of the participants had positive or neutral experiences when coming out to their families, and many of their friends were supportive, every participant spoke of the overwhelmingly negative view of the gay or queer community by the society at large – as indicated so explicitly by the way the town of Porterville reacted to the proposed LGBTQ Pride Month proclamation.  This being said, however, many have found ways to counteract the disapproval.  For example, by surrounding themselves with a created familial unit made up of friends and other loved ones, they are able to continue to exist within the community of Tulare County – one that they have been a part of for most of their lives – and still know who they are and that the things said about them do not change anything about their character.  This strength and courage, even when presented with devastating opposition, is best exemplified by a twenty-four year old participant of this study who’s mother once wanted to “take [him] to church and get [him] blessed and cured,” who said:

“I think coming out should be like a celebration, a celebration that you’re special and you’re not a freak and nothing is wrong with you.  There should be confetti and everything.  I think if more people looked at it like this big party where you just got to be yourself and everyone accepted you for you, then I think it would be much more easy for people to come out.  That’s how I look at it.”

[Porterville, CA 2013 Veteran's Day Parade]

[Porterville, CA 2013 Veteran’s Day Parade]


CONCLUDING COMMENTS
According to the participants’ remarks and the outside research consulted, I found that the unique and extreme expression of Christian fundamentalism in Tulare County, California makes life incalculably more trying for the area’s queer youth.  Not only is forming one’s own, autonomous identity and coming of age difficult in and of itself, queer kids in this section of the California “Bible Belt” are teased, harassed, looked down upon, bullied, assaulted, and as they are seen as more impressionable, the community makes an active effort to change them, to make them “straight” by telling them they are wrong, which just adds to more confusion and more hurt.  The expression of Christian fundamentalism in Tulare County, and its permeation of the culture there, seems to cause the queer youth growing up in the area to question themselves and the communities they have associated with since childhood.  Ideally speaking, the knowledge gained from this research will be used to educate the community of Tulare County – and potentially beyond – in order to bring awareness to these individuals who are not only pushed to the sidelines of their society, but also actively ridiculed.  Because Christian fundamentalism does have something to do with the hostility toward the gay community, I hope this research can inform those who partake in religious practices that foster discrimination and comfort the individuals affected by letting them know they are not alone.


REFERENCES/WORKS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH

  • Barton, Bernadette. ““Abomination”—Life as a Bible Belt Gay.” Journal Of Homosexuality 57, no. 4 (April 2010): 465-484. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 30, 2012).
  • For the Bible Tells Me So. Dir. Daniel G. Karslake. Revelation Films (2009) (UK) (DVD), First Run Features (2007) (USA) (theatrical), CMV Laservision (2010) (Germany) (DVD), Sundance Channel (2008) (USA) (TV), 2007. Netflix.com. Web. 9 Sept. 2012. <https://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/For_the_Bible_Tells_Me_So/70059383?locale=en-US>.
  • “Gay Porterville” https://www.facebook.com/gayporterville
  • Gray, Mary L. Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America. New York: New York UP, 2009. Print.
  • Hal, James A. “Fundamentalist Political Power in America.” Free Inquiry 25, no. 2 (February 2005): 12-13. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2012).
  • Morford, Mark. “Blame the God of Woe for Prop 8’s Passage.” Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 16, no. 1 (January 2009): 7-8. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2012).
  • “Porterville, CA Mayoral LGBT Proclamation Opposed by Christian Base.” CanyonwalkerConnections.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2013. <http://canyonwalkerconnections.com/porterville-ca-mayoral-lgbt-proclamation-opposed-by-christian-base/>.

[1] For the sake of recognizing the numerous and varying identities that fall outside of heterosexuality (and also outside of mainstream, heterocentric language), and for consistency throughout this paper, I will use the term queer to address those individuals who identify as anything other than heterosexual – be it gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, gender-queer, etc.

[2] “Tulare County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau.” Tulare County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. Accessed September 28, 2012. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06/06107.html.

[3] State of California. Employment Development. “IMMEDIATE RELEASE VISALIA-PORTERVILLE     METROPOLITAN STATISTICAL AREA (MSA) (Tulare County).” News release, Fresno, 2012. Labor Market Information Division.

[4] “Tulare County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau.” Tulare County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. Accessed September 28, 2012. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06/06107.html.

[5] For the sake of this paper, any mention to religion – and furthermore, the terms church or the church – are referring to this expression of Christian fundamentalism in Tulare County, unless otherwise indicated.  This is the most common vocabulary for the population I refer to.

[6] Mariec01. “Same-Sex Marriage in California’s Central Valley.” YouTube. July 30, 2009. Accessed September 23, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4rOqjdhL90.

[7] “Porterville, California.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 28, 2012.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porterville,California.

[8] Ho, Vivian, and Demian Bulwa. “Many Gay Couples with Kids Live in Tulare County.” SFGate. June 23, 2011. Accessed September 28, 2012.
http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Many-gay-couples-with-kids-live-in-Tulare-County-2366852.php.


About the Author:  Olivia Bennett is a graduate of Mills College, in Oakland, California.  At the time of publication, she was in her final year of undergrad, finishing up her B.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  Her thesis topic and research focus explores the particular expression of Christian fundamentalism in Tulare County, California and the impact it has on the area’s queer population with regard to their identity formation and coming out process, as well as its manifestations within local government.  She believes in the multiplicities of truth within experiential knowledge and the power of storytelling.  Her complete academic thesis will be available online soon.  To receive word upon publication, please provide your e-mail here: “Love Thy Neighbor?” Update Sign-Up.

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