RICHMOND -- Is the city a bastion for anti-gay hate that bleeds into the political sphere?
A flurry of recent news stories from local and national media has cast a harsh light on bigoted vitriol directed at Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, Richmond's first openly gay elected leader.
But residents and leaders contend the reality is more nuanced and that Richmond reflects the continuing evolution toward acceptance of gay people as equals and the rejection of discrimination based on sexual orientation. They note that the anti-gay ridicule directed at leaders like Beckles, and sometimes at police Chief Chris Magnus, is the work of a small group of people who disrupt City Council meetings in this city of more than 106,000 residents.
"I don't think that Richmond has more of a ways to go than anywhere else in California" in terms of acceptance of gays, said Mike Parker, a resident and former mayoral candidate who supports Beckles. "Most people in Richmond are horrified by that kind of stuff."
But anti-gay rhetoric continues to bubble to the surface and has become pronounced during this election season. Beckles is fighting for re-election and has become a polarizing figure, with her critics contending that she's as much an aggressor as a victim.
Since her election in 2010, Beckles has been subjected to repeated verbal attacks at public council meetings concerning her sexuality, albeit from just a handful of people who attend every meeting and berate other public officials as well. In July, tensions boiled over when Beckles spearheaded an inquiry into the legality of banning residents from council meetings for six months for hate speech.
During a meeting to hear the item, she sent her critics an email laced with the n-word and "cracker," a derogatory term for white people, posed as questions and with a disclaimer "stated for effect only."
After the meeting, she got into a video-recorded argument with a few of her critics and directed others to call police, who came but made no arrests. In the video, Beckles yelled, "You're a bunch of bullies. You're a bunch of women abusers" and insinuated that their conduct played a role in street violence that kills African-Americans. The Rev. Kenneth Davis, a frequent Beckles critic, can be heard on the video telling Beckles, "You should die."
While the incidents of hate speech generally involve only a few people, they have garnered wide publicity.
"I have mixed feelings," said Magnus, the city's popular and first openly gay police chief, who said he has endured instances of verbal harassment over his sexuality as well. "I don't know there is any greater anti-gay sentiment in Richmond than in other places or if just a lot of things in Richmond get expressed a lot more candidly by a few people who live here. Sometimes the discourse is a little coarse."
Magnus did allude to a subtle difference that may be at play among some Richmond leaders. While the city's governing majority has championed a range of progressive causes in recent years, from designating residents with pets as "guardians" rather than "owners" to spearheading a hefty local minimum wage hike, not all residents and city leaders are on board with the new direction. When Beckles and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin decided to hoist a rainbow-colored gay pride flag at City Hall for Gay Pride Month, three city employees fired off emails complaining, with one writing that Richmond isn't "the Castro (district)," a reference to the San Francisco neighborhood known as a stronghold of gay rights.
Councilman Nat Bates criticized Beckles and McLaughlin at the time for not being "sensitive" to people who disagreed with the flag flying.
"When (anti-gay speech) is voiced, I think the reaction has not been as swift and consistent in terms of condemning it," Magnus said.
The issue of overt anti-gay slurs continues to goad Beckles to react, sometimes with profanity, which rallies her supporters and provokes her detractors.
On Aug. 23, Beckles posted on Facebook that it was "scary" that the Richmond Police Officers Association, the union representing the department's rank and file, was backing Bates' campaign to be mayor. Bates and Beckles have clashed for years, most recently when Bates criticized Beckles' inquiry into banning members of the public who use hate speech from meetings, on grounds that it would trample First Amendment rights.
"I'm curious," Beckles wrote. "Perhaps someone can help me understand how a Police Association can endorse Nat Bates for mayor; a man who instigates, encourages and defends homophobia, and violence, in particular, violence against women."
The union fired back with a news release that was promptly picked up as a news story by the Richmond Standard, a website funded by Chevron Corp., which supports Bates and opposes Beckles.
"Ms. Beckles' comments are 'irresponsible' and not based on facts, and as a city leader she should be ashamed of herself for irresponsibly hijacking crimes against women to further her own personal and political agenda," Sgt. Stina Johanson said in the news release.
Beckles dismissed the issue as a "divide and conquer" strategy orchestrated by her political opponents. In a telephone interview Thursday, she said anti-gay bigotry is the work of a small group of people but noted that their message is amplified by live televised council meetings seen throughout the city.
As for whether her own reactions fuel the backlash, Beckles said no.
"It's ridiculous to try to put the blame on any victim of aggression, violence, or bigoted or hate speech," Beckles said. "That kind of reasoning perpetuates hate and violence."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.