I’ve lived in Fresno for most of my life. Despite that, I’d never visited the Forestiere Underground Gardens before LGBT Fresno invited me to join their tour. The place is easy to miss; it sits on West Shaw, right by the 99. The sign for the Gardens blends into the rest of the billboards that dot Fresno. From the sidewalk outside, you can see a Lutheran Church, an auto shop, and an In-n-Out Burger. Stretch your neck a little and a Carl’s Jr. pops into view. The spot itself is surrounded by a chain-link fence, partially overgrown by trees and vines. It doesn’t seem like the place you’d find an official historical landmark or an agricultural engineering masterpiece that has persisted for about a century.
Once inside, the notion quickly fades.
An attendant asks me a few questions and offers me a green colored popsicle stick, explaining that it marks me for the 11:45 A.M. tour. I tell him that I’m here for an event and he apologizes, leading me to my group. We pass around introductions—the organization’s higher ups, Andrea and Jason, are two of the only people here, so far—and wait for our tour. It’s a comfortable wait; there’s a latticework canopy over the walkway, pale-green vines filling in the blank spaces between the wood. Our tour guide appears, pointing out that the vines aren’t fully grown, yet. Sure enough, a close look reveals little bushels of stems with tiny green nubs at the end, smaller than a grain of rice. Bees buzz around us, jumping from flower to flower. I’m not used to seeing this much green in Fresno’s city limits, especially after all the droughts.
I find myself taking pictures and listening in on conversations, quickly realizing that most of our group has never been here before, despite having lived in Fresno all their lives. Our group swells. People split off into their own cliques and, before long, the tour guide ushers us down the staircase to the lobby to pay for our tickets. We mull about there for a while. There’s a small, unobtrusive gift shop sitting catty-corner from a much bigger bulletin board packed with information about the gardens and their creator. There’s even a soil sample from his now-deserted hometown of Filari, in northeastern Sicily. There’s a gorgeous ballroom adjacent, but it looks like we aren’t supposed to go there, just yet.
A wrought-iron fence separates the lobby from the main tunnel network, its iron bars bent and twisted like vines, hung with white and violet lights in the shape of grapes. It’s there that our tour guide ushers us, and the group gathers for a picture. I manage to wheedle my way out of it, somehow. I’ve never been a big fan of photos.
June 1st—only about a week away— marks the 29th annual Fresno Rainbow Pride Parade and Festival, celebrating the Central Valley’s LGBTQ community. Last year’s attendance broke records and, this year, the community hopes to continue the trend with the theme: “2GETHER.”
One of the organizations taking part in the parade and festival this year is LGBT Fresno, formerly known as Gay Fresno. I recently had a chance to sit down with Jason Scott, the organization’s division leader, and Andrea, the volunteer coordinator, to get some more info about the event and ask why people— whether or not they identify as LGBTQ— should attend and volunteer.
The festivities are reason enough; nestled into Fresno’s hip-but-ancient Tower District, there will be food, entertainers, and raffles for bags full of items given to LGBT Fresno by their sponsors. Bobby Salazar’s, a much-loved Mexican food chain in the Fresno area, has donated two brunch tickets as a part of the raffle. The proceeds from those raffles go straight to funding LGBT Fresno’s various community services. The parade, itself, promises to be as colorful and fun as ever and, due to the yearly increase in attendance, some national organizations are starting to pitch in.
“Free Mom Hugs,” started by Sara Cunningham in Oklahoma in 2015, is a stand-out example. Sara was a devout Christian who, after her son came out as gay, reconciled her faith and her son’s sexuality. It was a long process, but as she said in an interview with Indianwomenblog.org: “there’s no rule that one can’t be gay and practice their faith at the same time.”
Unfortunately, her response was far from typical, especially in religious communities. Many families distance themselves from LGBTQ relatives, some parents going so far as to disown their own children. Noticing the trend, Sara’s organization dedicated itself to filling in for those unloving families by giving members of the LGBTQ community the unconditional familial love they deserve. These days, she sometimes stands in as a mother in weddings, if requested.
But, coming out to Pride doesn’t have to be a big political statement, nor does it require any baring of the soul. In fact, when I asked Jason what he liked best about Pride, he summed it up in two words: “The lightheartedness.”
According to him, all you have to do is show up, have a good time, and hang out with people. It’s a family-friendly event, too. More and more families are joining the party, and there’s even been an increase of gay and lesbian couples arriving with their children in tow. Jason, himself, is among them. As a result, the organizers will be opening a kid’s area at Pride, complete with bounce houses.
Still, some non-LGBTQ people, regardless of their opinions of the community, can be reluctant to attend Pride events, worrying that the event isn’t “for” them or that members might be hostile towards those outside of the community. Luckily, Jason and Andrea weren’t the only members of LGBT Fresno I talked to. Johnnie Ann Huffman, a straight ally who’s been with LGBT Fresno for years, had her own pitch: “This is not a political straight people suck parade,” she said. “This is a pride parade and a family event. You see whole families here. Mom and dad and kids and even their grandkids. It’s been made as inclusive as it can be, it’s meant to be welcoming. Everyone’s invited.”
Sure enough, that inviting atmosphere radiated through the restaurant where we had our meeting. But, there was one last topic to cover: even those in Fresno who support the LGBTQ community can be reluctant to make it out for Pride. They’d rather wait ‘til the end of the month and drive north to the bigger party, up in San Francisco. According to Jason, they avoid Fresno’s Pride Parade thinking it’s the same every year. It isn’t, of course; it’s been steadily growing.
To Jason, however, there’s a bigger issue at stake. He says that if no-one comes out to support the local community, it makes it easier to marginalize LGBTQ people: “A politican will look at an event, see how big it is. If they don’t see anyone, they won’t take us seriously or worry about our best interests, because they see us as a small group not worth their time.”
Johnnie, too, had something to say about the matter. She noted that most people know someone who is LGBTQ, even if they aren’t aware of it. And, for them, seeing someone they might not have known was an ally is like being stranded in a battlefield and suddenly finding someone who’s willing to fight alongside you. It makes them feel loved and supported.
“If you know one person who is LGBT, you should be here,” she said. “Don’t quietly support from your couch. Come out and show the community that you’re with them.”
About the Author: Connor D. Johnson (C.J. Wilson) is a freelance writer specializing in journalism, game writing, and non-profit/advocacy work. He’s also a fantasy/sci-fi writer. You can contact him or find more examples of his work at his website, [here].
Take an hour long guided walking tour through Baldassare Forestiere's creation.
See a hand-built network of underground rooms, courtyards and passageways reminiscent of the ancient catacombs.
Unique fruit producing trees, shrubs, and vines growing underground - some over 90 years old!
Ancient Roman architecture - arches, vaults and stone-built walls.
Underground micro-climates - temperature variations of 10 to 30 degrees!
Underground home of Sicilian visionary and self-taught artist/builder Baldassare Forestiere.
May 11th 11:00am You should arrive and pay entrance fee no later than 11:10 am. Tour will start promptly at 11:15am. Because the Gardens are generous enough to share this offer of a private tour event with us we will have a discount tour price for this time and day only. Babies 4 and under are always free, Kids $8 and Adults $16. There is so much history and you can find that here.
Kids are welcomed. No pets allowed, unless certified.