San Fernando's First Openly Gay Mayor

The City of San Fernando is a town of many long held traditions where families boast living for generations, and neighbors tell stories about growing up together. Little more than two miles long, it’s the Valley’s oldest city and unknown to most it is the location where the Valley first began.

Two long established Catholic churches sit in the center of town with their parochial schools and a number of Evangelical churches dot corner streets, including the Valley’s oldest Spanish Language Assembly of God Church.

To say that San Fernando is steeped in religious World history is an understatement. The predominately Mexican American community just celebrated the reopening of the historic Lopez Adobe, and is located just a few miles away from the San Fernando Mission that was once part of the city.

On Monday, March 23, at a special City Council meeting, this small close knit community, had a new “first” to add to it’s history.

The newly elected council, by a vote of 3-2, named Joel Fajardo as their first openly gay Mayor.

“It’s a huge honor to be San Fernando’s first openly gay Mayor. I know I have a lot of people in San Fernando, and the surrounding communities, who are supportive and I hope to do a good job not only in representing the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) community but the San Fernando community in general,” said Fajardo, 31, who sent a text message to his parents following the vote.

“I think it’s special to be the Mayor of San Fernando irrespective of gender identification and I look at this as a unique opportunity to represent a segment of the community that hasn’t been represented in previous years.”

But this change would not be without it’s small town, cloak-and-dagger backroom drama.

Prior to the vote, city council members received homophobic material containing Fajardo’s image delivered by mail via the U.S. Postal Service right before the meeting.

It was sent anonymously addressed to council members in an unmarked envelope. The contents were described to the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol as being “repugnant and potentially damaging.”

The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol has made a request to City Hall officials to review the material.

Fajardo believes that the material was timed to be delivered on the day of the vote, and was intended to derail him from going forward to accept the position.

“I didn’t see it until about thirty minutes before the council meeting,” Fajardo said.

“I was very disappointed that people would try to use intimidating tactics so that I would not seek the position as Mayor. I could say it was very much a surprise but at the same time, nothing really surprises me in politics.”

Fajardo said he was unsure what possible action could be taken to identify the person who sent the controversial mail.  Whether sending this material can be classified as a “hate crime” has yet to be determined. 

Fajardo recalled his campaign two years ago, when a homophobic flier to “out” him to voters was distributed to households during the last days of his campaign. “This feels like more of the same,” he said.

Reaction to the vote

The news, shared with his colleagues at his day job at Keller Williams Real Estate in Porter Ranch, was met with hearty congratulations.

Gilbert Berriozabel, Fajardo’s appointee to the Transportation and Safety Commission who is also openly gay, was in the council chambers when Fajardo won the vote.

“Well, it was absolutely a proud moment to witness Joel be elected by his peers as our city’s next mayor,” Commissioner Berriozabel said. “He has proven to be remarkably knowledgeable and prepared to lead our city forward. I think our city has come a long way and as proud as I am to see Joel become San Fernando’s first openly gay Mayor. It’s also great to see he was chosen on merit.”

On Facebook, reader Ralph Imperial said “Having an openly gay Mayor is great for the City of San Fernando as long as he’s also an openly good Mayor… Let’s not just focus on what he does in his bedroom and let’s see what he brings to the table… San Fernando is a great city with lots of history and great families.”

Not everyone shared well wishes. One regular council observer said when he showed up after Fajardo had been named Mayor, a local resident whispered in his ear, “The faggot won.”

The negative reaction and insult doesn’t shock Fajardo, who acknowledged the negative attitudes held among some of those living in the local area.

“I would agree that not everyone is accepting of having an openly gay Mayor,” he said. “One of my friends [who lives in San Fernando] recently rented out a room to a Gay couple and a few weeks later, the words ‘S***k D***k’ was painted on his fence.

“This was a few months ago. So I am aware that not everyone feels that it is a welcoming community, but by being more visible it creates more of a sense of what it means to be Gay or LGBTQ. You can probably drive by the house and see where it was painted over.”

Being Different

Fajardo, a graduate of Boston University who defines himself as a “political aficionado,” said being “different” is something he contended with growing up. He said he was bullied up until the ninth grade, so he is pleased that in his position as Mayor he can offer support to others.

“I hope it helps young people to see that I have come out [because] there are communities where it is difficult to come out sometimes, because of cultural and religious reasons,” Fajardo said.

“It’s my dream to see a LGBTQ center in San Fernando. I sometimes think the vacant county building across from City Hall would make a good venue. I have spoken to people about it, but it’s not a plan in motion; it’s simply an idea at this stage.”

But he emphasizes that being gay, isn’t his single issue, and he has many areas of interest and issues of concern.

“I am very passionate about LGBTQ issues but I have a lot of other issues including building a financial reserve for the city,” Fajardo said. “I would also like to have extended days for voting [to increase voter participation], and would like the city to apply for Google Fiber to wire the city. It would be transforming to the community to have high speed broadband in the entire city.”

He recently went door-to-door to campaign for two of the incumbents, and said residents have told him that their streets have been neglected. He would like the city to build a timeline for street repair.

Another key issue for Fajardo, which he and council ally former Mayor Sylvia Ballin, (now Mayor Pro Tem) mutually oppose, is to stop the High-Speed Rail Authority’s proposed plan that would cut through the city.

“I think that we are making a lot of progress in laying our concerns out and making the point that the SR14 route is very destructive. I think that anyone that sees it [the proposed route] can see that it can potentially bankrupt our city,” he said.

“Given that the High Speed Rail is supposed to enrich the lives of cities and communities, this would do quite the opposite and we need to keep fighting for the City of San Fernando the way we have been.”

His fundamental goal he said is to be a strong Mayor. “I see myself as the Mayor of San Fernando who happens to be gay, and I don’t see it as two separate responsibilities.”