A packed house listening to the city of San Fernando council meeting
Over 100 people showed up to provide and witness public commentary at the San Fernando City Council meeting on Nov. 6. (SFVS/el Sol Photo/Semantha Raquel Norris)

At the San Fernando City Council meeting on Monday, Nov. 6, before the council could honor their late Councilmember Cindy Montañez and other items on the agenda, community members flooded into the chamber for the public comment period, ready to speak out about Pickle the Drag Queen who was scheduled to read for storytime at the San Fernando library.

Members of an unruly group that protested the event two weeks ago, and celebrated shutting it down, found themselves met by a larger group at the council meeting of mostly younger residents standing behind LGBTQ+ rights. Over 100 people filled the council chambers, with many who stood against the wall and in the lobby outside. 

Person gives comment at the city council meeting during public comment.
Dani Varela, a transgender woman and lifelong San Fernando resident, speaks at the San Fernando City Council meeting while draped in the trans flag on Nov. 6. (SFVS/el Sol Photo/Semantha Raquel Norris)

Dani Varela, a lifetime resident of San Fernando stood shakily at the podium wrapped in a trans flag. 

“I am a 24-year-old autistic trans woman. I love the city with all my heart. I’ve seen it grow year to year into a hub of influence in our community. Yet it can be so much more,” said Varela. “On Oct. 25, outside instigators and far-right grifters dared to shut down our public library on the grounds of free speech and protecting our children, when in fact they are silencing the voices of the community and the LGBT youth of our city.”

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There was a sharp divide in the room between those who wished for the city of San Fernando to maintain a community of “traditional predominantly Catholic values,” and a new generation that views the city as becoming a more inclusive space for everyone. 

Testimony of a Community at a Crossroad

Alex Uribe encouraged the city to use this moment to take a stand against hate for future generations. 

Man gives comment during public commentary.
David Urzua’s mic was cut when his two minutes for commentary ended at San Fernando City Council meeting on Nov. 8. The meeting was contentious with conservative parents debating younger queer-friendly youth about the future of San Fernando public programming. (SFVS/el Sol Photo/Semantha Raquel Norris)

“This is really an opportunity to set a precedent and to set an example not only for the people here today … but for future generations, that the city of San Fernando and the San Fernando Valley will not tolerate bigotry, will not tolerate hate speech, will not tolerate the discrimination against any people,” said Uribe.

Some cited religion to preach love and inclusivity, while others referenced God as a justification for what they viewed as a moral position. 

“They have the right to make their choices. But when it comes to forcing it like this on our kids, parents have to stand up…This community was built on Catholic values, and we want to maintain that…We want our families to stay with God’s values,” said Laura Chavez, who later claimed that homosexuality is a mental illness that can be fixed.

Richard, who did not provide his last name, waved a bible at the audience before loudly reading a passage. 

“‘One nation under God’. And on our money, ‘in God we trust’. The word of God, which is the Holy Bible, which is the real word. And the word says, ‘So God created mankind in his own image. In his image of God, he created them, male and female,’” Richard’s voice boomed. 

His bible reference and the comments of others who described the local community as predominately “Catholic, traditional and conservative,” were met by speakers who countered – referencing the hypocrisy and sexual abuse that persists in the Catholic Church.

“A lot of the Catholics here today are talking about the harm imposed upon their children, when they’re some of the first to turn a blind eye to the abuse committed in their churches, by their priests, by their preachers, by their teachers. The first ones to cover it up…And now, because a drag queen wants to come and read stories to children, you’re all up in arms,” said Hannah Johnson, pointing her finger at the audience.

Some speakers said their parents believed that Drag Storytime has a political agenda imposed on their children.

“I’m proud of the response that the residents and parents who care about their children and showed up to express their disapproval. When you try to politicize and use children for an agenda, you’re going to get a strong response from parents,” said Carmen Vigil.

Theresa O’Toole argued that drag is pushing sexualization onto kids, and causing them to have mental health issues.

“The children of today they’re so depressed they’re committing suicide. Their sexualization is just pushed at them…Please stop pushing agendas not only on our children but on everyone in this town,” said O’Toole.

Many others countered that suicide and mental health issues are most prevalent in queer youth because they are not accepted for who they are. 

“I knew I was transgender when I was three years old,” said Dante Mejia, a lifelong San Fernando resident. “No one had to show me a drag queen…These kids they talk about who are in and out of mental institutions, who are killing themselves, who are depressed, I am that child. And I tried. And if I would have killed myself, my blood would have been on your hands. Because it is hate…You think that your discomfort is more important than my right to exist.”

Public Officials Weigh In

Senator Caroline Menjivar, the first LGBTQ legislator to represent the San Fernando Valley, called in via Zoom to make a public comment.

“The deaths by suicide is a top issue for our kids. LGBTQ+ youth make up [a] disproportionate [number] in the amount of kids in our foster system…Those are issues that I think are impacting our kids the most…Not the issue of someone coming to read,” said Menjivar.

Representatives from Assemblywoman Luz Rivas’ and Congressman Tony Cárdenas’ offices also spoke in support of the LGBTQ community. 

San Fernando Councilmember Joel Fajardo spoke from the council dais.

“I was saddened by the events that took place at the San Fernando Library. … That event amounted to more than just a protest. There were people actually barricading people from going into the library,” said Fajardo, who criticized the city’s response to what occurred as being “too neutral”. 

“I can tell you it was really hard being bullied for many years, relentlessly, almost every day for being gay…I just don’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through as a kid because we all deserve to live in a community that is free from hate,” said Fajardo.

Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, who scheduled the Drag Storytime in San Fernando, did not call in to comment during the meeting. However, the following day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting, she presented and passed a motion to improve LGBTQ+ community safety amid rising hate and violence, citing the incident in San Fernando as an example. 

The San Fernando Police Department was praised and thanked by protestors when the Drag Storytime was shut down, while those who witnessed protestors allowed to move into the library plaza, acting like an angry mob criticized the police for being complicit and not containing the crowd. Businesses were impacted and even those not connected with the event were subjected to their shouts accusing them of being “pedophiles.” Library staff, concerned about their safety locked their doors. 

For the council meeting, the SFPD called in the Monterey Park Police Department for additional support.

“I want to give a shout-out to the police officers, and the Monterey Park Police Department, who came out here tonight to make sure that everybody was safe as they expressed their opinions, [and] exercised their rights,” said SFPD Police Chief Fabian Valdez. 

The city clerk noted that in addition to in-person public comments made, there were phone and written statements. Out of 58 emailed public comments, 55 were in favor of the Drag Queen storytime event at the San Fernando Library, and two were in opposition. 

Honoring the Legacy of Cindy Montañez

Councilmembers teared up while speaking about Montañez, who passed on Oct. 21 after a battle with aggressive cancer. 

From left to right: Councilmember Joel Fajardo, Margarita Montañez, the late Cindy Montañez’s mother, and Vice Mayor Mary Mendoza, at the San Fernando City Council meeting on Nov. 6. (SFVS/el Sol Photo/Semantha Raquel Norris)

“I will always remember her smile and laugh. I will miss her words of encouragement and the trust that she had in me. She was an intelligent, courageous and brave woman.” said Vice Mayor Mary Mendoza. “I’m going to miss her so dearly. And it has been a rough two weeks.

A public Celebration of Life memorial for Montañez was announced for the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 21. The location has not been confirmed.

The vacancy leaves an even number of council members with no tie-breaking vote – Mayor Celeste T. Rodriguez, Councilmember Mary Solorio, Mendoza, and Fajardo. To fill the vacancy for the remainder of the term, a decision was made between appointing a replacement or holding a special election. 

“As we saw today, there are a lot of people who want to have a voice in government, and I believe that people should be able to make that determination,” said Fajardo

With an estimated cost of $65,000, the council voted 3-1 to hold an election on March 5th, consolidating it with the statewide general election. 

The meeting concluded with a moment of silence in honor of Montañez.

“This meeting is adjourned for our friend and our colleague, Councilmember Cindy Montañez,” said Rodriguez.

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

To report a hate crime against a member of the LGBTQ+ community, contact the Anti-Violence Project of the Los Angeles LGBT Center (services are available in English and Spanish) at(323) 993-7673. For other services and support for the LGBTQ+ community, go tohttps://lalgbtcenter.org.