Few people in the Central Valley city of Modesto have experienced anti-gay hate more directly than Matthew Mason. For Mason, now a nursing student and community activist, it came from his own mother.
“I was raised very conservatively, very Christian, very far right,” Mason told an audience of about 100 people gathered Saturday afternoon at Congregation Beth Shalom, the city’s lone synagogue. “I had been told my entire life that all gay people go to hell.”
Mason was speaking as part of a day of “solidarity, education and sanctuary” at the 100-year old synagogue, held to counter a so-called “Straight Pride March” going on just blocks away.
The synagogue event featured a panel discussion about diversity and free speech with speakers including Mason, the shul’s rabbi, Shalom Bochner, and Sikh city councilor Mani Grewal. The speakers followed a viewing of “Dear Freddy,” a documentary about a gay Auschwitz prisoner who became a hero to doomed children.
Mason told the audience – most of whom were not synagogue members – that he came to terms with his sexuality in his teenage years. When he was 19, he finally came out to his adoptive parents, Mylinda and Ron Mason.
“When I came out of the closet, and told them I was gay,” he said, “I was no longer welcome at home.”
Bochner shared with the crowd an email he had received the previous week from a person who was “confused how gay behavior, forbidden in the Torah, can be taught as loving.”
Citing modern interpretations of the verse from Leviticus that says, “thou shalt not lie with man as with a woman,” Bochner said he told the questioner, “Certainly for a man to have sex with man as with a woman is biologically impossible. Perhaps the Torah is teaching us to be real and not pretend to be what we are not.”
“We have to remember,” he told the crowd, “that we are reading a 3,000-plus-year-old text, and that norms of society have changed. The verse is at best subject to interpretation.”
The scene at the synagogue provided a stark contrast to what was going on minutes away at a Planned Parenthood center. There, about a dozen anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-immigrant protesters faced off in 95-degree heat with scores of pro-LGBT counter-protesters and radical left-wing demonstrators. Police, some on horseback, tried to corral the protesters, preventing them from spilling into the nearby five-lane highway. News reporters and television cameras were on hand to capture the ruckus.
The Straight Pride march in Modesto, organized by the months-old California Straight Pride Coalition, was hotly anticipated by the local press, commanding the attention of television news and the Modesto Bee newspaper in the preceding weeks. The coalition claimed on its website that it would be the first straight pride event “in the nation’s history.”
There were contentious city council hearings, as march organizers sought a city permit, which was eventually denied. But the march was held anyway, organized by fundamentalist Christian anti-gay and anti-abortion activists Don Grundmann – a former long-shot U.S. Senate candidate – and Mason’s now-estranged adoptive mom, Mylinda Mason.
In a Facebook post, Mylinda said the purpose of the march, which used the motto “normal, natural, healthy, sane,” was to “celebrate the inherent superiority” of heterosexuality, the “natural nuclear family,” “masculinity,” “femininity,” and “babies.” Her post said those “foundational principles” are “under unprecedented, sustained, and coordinated attack within our society.”
The demonstration also sought, according to Mylinda, to promote the “inherent superiority” of the following: “western civilization,” “Christianity,” “nationalism,” and “whiteness.”
After the “Straight Pride” marchers announced their plan, a counterprotest quickly mobilized, spurred by Chris Holland, a 46-year-old cable installer. He started a Facebook group – Straight Pride Counter-Protest – which saw close to 300 comments and attracted interest from local activists and others across California.
“I expect it to dwarf theirs,” Holland said of his counter-protest, speaking to J. days before the event.
He was right.
The counterprotest began at Enslen Park, on shaded grass near a baseball field, in a quiet upscale neighborhood north of downtown. It was a colorful affair, with chants, rainbow everything, tie-die clothes, confetti, and cheeky signs (“If being gay were a choice, I’d be gayer!”) One organizer called it the “most authentic Pride I’ve ever been to in my life,” lacking in “beer sales” and other vendors, he said.
Those gathered represented a wide range of people, united in their opposition to the Straight Pride march. There were radical left-wing anarchists and members of Antifa, middle-age adults sitting on beach chairs, transgender young people, young parents with kids, and even state and local politicians.
Twenty-year-old Izze, who is transgender, had their face painted with a bright pink triangle, a symbol use by the Nazis to identify gay prisoners. Izze said opposing the Straight Pride March was “something I can do something about.” They said their parents did not know about their sexual identity.
“It’s really hard to just exist in my house,” Izze said.
Tiffany Thompson, 39, wore a wide straw hat and rainbow socks. She held a sign that read “Modesto stands united against hate” on one side and “free mom hugs” on the other.
“I have a trans child,” she said. “But regardless of that, it’s important to come out and stand up for those who have a smaller voice.”
Amidst chants, like “No hate, no fear, straight pride is not welcome here,” state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, chair of the state legislative LGBTQ caucus, addressed the crowd. He expressed support for the counter-protest and pointed to what he sees as one cause of a resurgent radical right-wing nationwide – President Trump.
“I came here from San Francisco to say that we stand in complete solidarity with the people of Modesto,” he told the crowd. “We are all here together to fight this hate, this homophobia, transphobia, and white supremacy.”
“We know that this is not an isolated thing,” he continued. “We have a president who has unleashed the forces of hate.”
Not everyone at Enslen Park supported the counterprotest. Two far-right demonstrators, wearing knee pads and helmets, captured the activity using head-mounted cameras and another video camera on a tripod. Pro-LGBT and some far-left protesters, including Antifa, yelled at the two men and tried to block their lenses with rainbow flags, banners and screens, pushing them farther away from the center of the counter-protest.
A white man and woman walking a German shepherd, after thanking the police, offered their support to the right-wing videographers.
“You can smell them from here,” the man said, referring to the left-wing protesters.
Whether the Straight Pride supporters were racist, or just anti-gay, came up frequently throughout the day.
In a phone interview with J. days before the event, Grundmann, whose office is in Santa Clara, said that his group came to Modesto “to defend all races and colors.” He pointed a finger at Planned Parenthood for terminating the pregnancies of black women, which he referred to as “black genocide.”
“People who call us racists – it’s the opposite,” he said.
Still, Grundmann told J. it is a “historical and biological fact” that the “mass majority of Western civilization was due to Christianity and Caucasians.” Speaking to the press on Saturday, he elaborated on that theme, saying he wanted to make it clear that “it’s okay to be white.”
Grundmann is not a big fan of Jews, telling J. they are not in his camp. He is on record as saying that one of the greatest challenges facing the country is a “private banking cartel” represented by the Federal Reserve, and an “unelected elite of plantation masters” who “rule us.”
“Jewish people have their place in history,” Grundmann told J. “But we’re defending Caucasians.”
In a public questionnaire filled in during his 2018 Senate run, Grundmann said he considers Ted Cruz to be his political role model. He considers climate change a “hoax designed for the destruction of industry.” He went on to receive about 0.2 percent of the vote in the primary – more than 15,000 votes.
Jesse Lee Peterson, an African American man, said he traveled from Los Angeles to attend the Straight Pride rally. He held a sign that read “build the wall” in bright red letters outside Planned Parenthood, where the protest moved after Enslen Park. He came to stand for “God, family, country, and constitution,” he said.
“We can no longer be intimidated by the children of the lie,” Peterson said. “That is the liberal media, the radical homosexuals, the Democratic party, and the never-Trumpers.”
As to whether the march and rally promoted white supremacy, Peterson said that in fact, he did not believe that white supremacy existed at all.
“There is no such thing as white supremacists,” he said. “There is no such thing as slavery. It’s a made-up lie in order to try to intimidate people with words, because they don’t have the truth on their side.”
Another Straight Pride supporter – Ron Mason, Mylinda’s husband – said his motivation was preventing abortion and opposing homosexuality. He said Margaret Sanger, an early 20th-century American birth control activist who founded the clinic that was a precursor to Planned Parenthood, was “racist against black people.”
“I’m proud to be straight, the way God ordained me,” he added.
Friday evening, an interfaith service to oppose Straight Pride was held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, called “Embrace, Accept, Change: Celebrating the richness and beauty of our diversity.”
Rabbi Bochner was one of the number of speakers, which included religious leaders, NAACP branch president Wendy Byrd, Modesto’s mayor Ted Brandvold, and Karen Warner, district chief of staff for Congressman Josh Harder.
Interspersed with the singing of American folks songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and “America the Beautiful,” Catholic Bishop Myron J. Cotta quoted Pope Francis, who said it was “deplorable” that gays should be the object of violent speech and actions.
“One is condemned not by one’s orientation, but by sin,” Cotta said.
Imam Ahmed Kayello, of the Islamic Center of Modesto, told the crowd he was glad to do a “little bit of good that day,” joining with the community at St. Paul’s to “unit[e] together against hate, against any white supremacy, against bigotry, against racism.”
Bochner, who spoke first before heading to Kabbalat Shabbat at his synagogue, said the Torah “commands us to love our fellow. Everyone. As we love ourselves.” He received an enthusiastic “That’s right!” and applause from those seated in the pews.
Mary Lee, a white-haired Unitarian Universalist who’s lived in Modesto for 20 years, stood alone in a pew, clutching an electric tea light in her left hand as she sang along with, “This Little Light of Mine.”
“All around my town, I’m gonna let it shine,” she sang.
Charmed by St. Paul’s pastor Nick Lorenzetti, who peppered the evening with jokes and anecdotes, Lee said she came to St. Paul’s that night because she was “concerned about the feeling in the country.”
Byrd, who leads the Modesto/Stanislaus Branch of the NAACP, addressed the audience gathered at St. Paul’s. She wore a flowing purple dress and bright turquoise jewelry, as she read an excerpt from a speech by Toni Morrison given at Portland State University in 1975. Morrison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, died earlier this month.
“We are the moral inhabitants of the globe,” Byrd read. “And to deny that is to lie in prison.”
Byrd said that although the African American population in Modesto is small – about 4 percent – it was important they be represented, and show support at the interfaith service.
She also showed up at the Planned Parenthood protest the next day, standing with the other counter-protesters in the blazing hot sun, “We know what it feels like to deal with people who do not value you,” she said.
As the Saturday afternoon event at Beth Shalom was winding down, Bochner asked everyone there to close their eyes, and “think of your own identity, in all its variety.”
“Take a moment to take a deep breath and to think of your own family identity, sexual identity, spiritual identity, political identity, ethnic or cultural identity,” he said.
“Now,” he continued, “remind yourself that you are made in the image of the Creator, who when humanity was formed, announced it was ‘very good.’
“We are all very good,” he said.