When Fresno City Council recently voted to observe LGBTQ Pride Month by displaying the rainbow flag at City Hall, Mayor Jerry Dyer’s objection was not surprising.
Republican who announces loud and clear his faith as a born again Christian, the mayor said he was concerned about the precedent that the left council would create and the divisions it would cause. What other flags should be honored by the city? How about hoisting religious flags at the futuristic civic center?
Across the country, fights to fly the pride flag have become a springtime perennial, like crocuses, though much less beautiful. And of course, the 5-2 vote led to the very divide the mayor had hoped to avoid.
Naturally, this also turned into a partisan fight.
Local Democrats weighed in in a statement touting the flag raising as a way “to inspire hope and create a sense of inclusion.” Local Republicans called the move “short-sighted and extreme.”
Then Dyer did something unusual. Rather than dig into his position and dismiss the criticism, he listened.
He read the emails that flooded his office. He went through the hundreds of voicemail messages people left. He has spoken to constituents, Starbucks and the church. He has heard tearful stories of gay, lesbian and transgender people being ostracized or rejected by family and friends.
He changed his mind.
“It broke my heart to hear these stories one after the other,” said Dyer, growing more and more moved as he recounted the conversations. He realized, he said, the importance of hoisting the pride flag at City Hall “as a symbol of hope, a symbol of inclusion, a symbol of being supported.”
Fresno is California’s fifth largest city and, perhaps surprisingly, for those looking up and down Central Valley, the hottest real estate market in the country.
It is a predominantly Democratic city, with sizable Latin American and Asian constituencies, in a rural area that is otherwise deeply republican.
Dyer, who served as Fresno’s police chief for 18 years, was elected mayor in March 2020 after leading a campaign that made unity a central theme. At her first post-election press conference, a woman pedaling her bicycle outside City Hall shouted obscenity, suggesting the job Dyer had carved out for himself.
He’s not the kind of big-city mayor you typically think of in California, where Democrats reign supreme.
But “he’s very articulate and very good at television,” said Jim Boren, former editor of the Fresno Bee who teaches journalism at Fresno State University. “Beyond that, although he comes from a very conservative background, he has proven to be more than willing to listen to the other side in a way that we haven’t seen much happening.”
Dyer spent several sleepless nights after the council voted to fly the rainbow flag. The flashback made him realize the emotional nature of the problem, he said, and his dead end. He unveiled an alternate plan, flying the flag in a newly designed “unity park” near City Hall, where banners of all stripes would be welcome.
The response was not positive. LGBTQ leaders said the plan shrank their community and compared the mayor’s suggestion to “separate but equal” laws that provided the framework for decades of racial discrimination.
A gay friend suggested that the mayor attend the pride ceremony at Fresno City College and, after speaking to its president, Dyer introduced himself among the crowd of fifty. He stood back and tried not to attract too much attention.
He listened a little more. He was particularly moved, Dyer later said when university president Carole Goldsmith “recounted how when she first told her parents that she was gay… how she was asked to leave the house. How it broke his heart.
“And then the countless stories of other people who felt left out,” Dyer continued, “were left out of friends who walked away from them, from family who walked away from them, from churches which, in their eyes, had excluded them. “
Hours later, just over a week after the council vote, Goldsmith joined Dyer in an emotional press conference where he announced his change of mind and said he supported the flying of the flag pride at town hall. An official ceremony is scheduled for Friday.
In an interview, Dyer acknowledged that his change in stance could cost him the support of his fellow Republican and conservative Christians, but he said the issue transcended politics. “I have my basic faith in Christ, I don’t hide it,” Dyer said. “But I don’t want that to stop me from making people feel loved and supported in our community.”
It is a rare sight these days to see someone in an elected position who is open-minded enough to reconsider and then change their position in the throes of heated debate.
This reflexive and inflexible partisanship is something that bothers him among politicians, Dyer said, insisting – despite his position – that he was not one of them.
His intention was to “do the right thing for people and make them feel included and important,” he said, and Dyer wanted others “to make decisions based on that rather than to know whether or not they will be re-elected “.
“Do the right thing for the right reason,” he said. “Make decisions based on pure motives and not for convenience or political gain, for ultimately that is what will allow you to live with yourself.”
On Friday, Dyer plans to meet and pray with supporters of the local evangelical community. Next, the mayor will attend the rainbow flag raising ceremony at City Hall.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.