From left: Santa Barbara Police Chief Kelly Ann Gordon, former Congressman Michael Huffington, and former Mayor Harriett Miller | Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara Police Department; Russell Roederer; Gerry Melendez

IS SILENCE GOLDEN?  The thing of it is that it’s not a thing at all. Or seems not to be. I can’t wrap my head around it. That’s probably a good thing. But I’m not really sure.

Dredging up all this second guessing is the fact that Santa Barbara’s newest police chief, Kelly Ann Gordon, is gay. She has a wife with whom she’s raised three impressive grown children. At official events, she and her wife show up and smile at one another with casual warmth. They exchange those absent-minded pecks that many married couples do. Likewise, the police department’s public information officer, Sgt. Ethan Ragsdale, has a husband. So it says in the official biography put out by the police department itself. But this being Santa Barbara, none of this is mentioned, let alone remarked upon, celebrated, or even vilified. That’s probably not surprising. Discretion has always been the better part of valor here.

There are certain subjects one just doesn’t talk about.

Contrary to most popular histories, the Spaniards did not “discover” Santa Barbara. Wealthy refugees fleeing the violent cold of our midwestern winters did. Just so long as the hoi polloi knew not to ask too many questions or invade their privacy, these snowbird scions of unimaginable wealth were happy to donate lavishly to all the right causes.

For about 100 years, that’s been the social contract here in Santa Barbara.

I bring this up because this week President Joe Biden signed the Marriage in Equality Act, which makes the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling recognizing the marriages of gay and lesbian couples bulletproof to possible second guessing and changes by conservative members of this or other Supreme Court majorities.

For those of us who grew up knowing not to cross one’s legs a certain way for fear of signaling to the world that one is gay, this is a very huge deal. But for everyone else, it seems, this is yet another case of the law finally catching up to the people. That the New York Times saw fit to bury the article on page A8 is telling. On the Gray Lady’s webpage, the story trailed after a news item explaining why men sprout hair in weird places as they grow older.

Translated, that’s a big “meh.” 

Maybe that’s how it should be.

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Still, I remember all the exaggerated and cartoonish contortions a former head of Santa Barbara’s community development department felt compelled to make every time a woman with large breasts walked into the room just so people wouldn’t think he was gay. But he was and everyone knew it. Every Saturday, he and his partner could be seen walking down the aisles together at the Vons in Montecito. I will never forget the withering glare I got when broaching the issue of sexual orientation with former Mayor Harriett Miller. Miller, after all, had spent 45 years sharing a loving home with her lifelong companion, Elizabeth Harrison. Miller was one of the most competent and intimidating mayors the city has ever had. Some gay activists at the time talked about outing Miller “for the cause.” But they quickly thought better of it. She was just too scary. To the extent Miller had anything to say, she let the pink tutu she wore at Solstice parades do her talking.

In the early ’90s, Michael Huffington, a gay man trapped in a straight marriage, ran for Senate from his Montecito home — a property previously occupied by an heir of the McCormick fortune who was also a stark raving sex maniac who used the residence as both private prison and asylum — against U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. In person, Huffington was not a bad human being, but politically he was another empty-suited rich guy with nothing to say looking to buy a political office. Lots of people wanted to stop Huffington for lots of good reasons, but among the good-old-boy Republicans out to get him, there was always more than a whiff of homophobia involved. Feinstein won that one, obviously, but just barely.

Far more ominously, it’s worth remembering that the Atascadero State Hospital 111 miles up the coast functioned as a gay gulag from its founding in 1954 to the early 1970s. It’s where gay men were “cured” of their sexual psychosis by any means necessary. This included electroshock treatments, sleep deprivation, and prolonged chemical sedation. It also included something called “Errorless Extinction of Penile Responses” —EEPR for short — in which a patient had electric wires attached to his penis and was then shown photos designed to sexually arouse him. Should he betray any evidence of sexual response, he would be zapped. Worse yet were the administrations of anti-convulsive medication marketed as “Anectine.” This was a paralytic drug designed to keep patients receiving electroshock from harming themselves as they thrashed about. But it could also deaden all involuntary muscle movement, making the patient feel as if he was drowning. In essence, it was the chemical equivalent of waterboarding.

President Joe Biden signs the “Respect for Marriage Act” on December 13 | Credit: Office of the President of the United States

Gay marriage?

In just a few short years, the arch of love — and of history — has been irreversibly bent toward the light. It’s become so normal it’s almost boring. 

Even now, it’s still hard to imagine.

Give Joe Biden credit. He got it right first by pushing President Barack Obama during a surprise interview back in 2012 to move beyond the second-class-citizen status of “civil unions.” Stealing a line from Bo Didley, Biden framed the issue simply, basically, and fundamentally. “Who do you love?” Biden asked. “Who do you love?”

Who, indeed? Even the Mormon Church gets it. The Mormons came out and endorsed this bill; by contrast, the Catholic Church could not. The four Mormons — all Republicans — who represent Utah in Congress all voted for it too. Mormons, it should be remembered, led the charge back in 2008 when California voters narrowly approved Prop. 8, the statewide initiative defining marriage as an act between a man and a woman. They put up the bulk of the money and most of the volunteers.

Something has moved. Something big. So yea, I’d say it’s most definitely a thing. 

Credit: Office of the President of the United States

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