Solvang City Councilmember Robert Clarke | Credit: Courtesy

Robert Clarke was having none of it. As the Solvang city councilmember prepared to reject an application to hang banners and paint downtown crosswalks in celebration of Pride Month, he took great umbrage at the concern voiced by project supporters that the community he leads is not as tolerant as it claims to be.

“When people want to disparage anything about this damn town, I take offense to it,” said Clarke, a 17-year resident of the city, his voice rising. “From living in New York, from living in San Francisco, from living in Chicago, this is the friendliest goddamn town I’ve ever been in. People here are welcoming; they’re warm; they embrace everybody.” Clarke then proceeded with two of his colleagues to vote down the application, calling the Pride-themed proposal “political” and divisive. 

The application had been submitted by The Rainbow House Inc., a nonprofit resource center on Copenhagen Drive for LGBTQIA+ residents. “Visibility, equality, equity, and inclusion is something that we often hear but unfortunately is something that doesn’t tend to include the LGBTQIA+ community,” said its founder, Kiel Cavalli, who also owns the ONEder Child toy store next door. “Your approval of these banners and crosswalks would send a message to our local community, the queer community, and beyond that the City of Solvang hears us, sees us, and supports us.”

Speaking after Cavalli was project critic Jesse Condit Bengoa, a fifth-generation resident whose grandfather served as mayor. Her father sat on the planning commission. Bengoa said Solvang shouldn’t promote an “ideology” that could alienate visitors. “First it was a Pride parade through downtown Solvang this past June, then the drag show idea in December,” she said. “Next it was the Valentine’s Day social media post featuring a gay couple, and now rainbow sidewalks.” The city, she said, ought to reject this “woke campaign,” maintain its Danish heritage, and “stay true to who and what we are.”

David Silva, who sits on Solvang Theaterfest’s board of directors, spoke alongside his husband, Jason Stone, a health advocate at UCSB. Silva reminded the council that the city’s Danish history is rooted in a country that has led the way on LGBTQIA+ rights. “Legalizing gay marriage faster than most of the world, making trans rights faster than most of the world — that is Danish heritage,” he said.

Silva told the council he didn’t appreciate his existence as a gay man being described as “political,” and he rejected the notion that Solvang is utterly devoid of prejudice. “I have been called a fag in this community more times in the last two years than I can count, and it’s uncomfortable to be told that homophobia doesn’t exist in this area,” he said. Another speaker referenced the recent theft and burning of a pride flag from an area church.

Mayor Mark Infanti and Councilmember David Brown voted with Clarke against the proposal, but on the grounds the banners and crosswalks would unfairly support a single business — the toy store — and not benefit the city as a whole. City policy, they explained, prohibits banners for private financial gain. Infanti also said he didn’t believe Solvang struggles whatsoever with acceptance. “I haven’t seen the prejudice that is being expressed,” he said.

Councilmember Claudia Orona questioned the pair’s policy rationale, noting how Solvang invests heavily in promoting Christmas while a handful of shops sell Christmas decor. “Nobody’s arguing that that is favoring one business over another,” she said. Moreover, Danish Days celebrations benefit the stores that offer Danish merchandise. Orona voted to approve the banners but stopped short at the crosswalks, expressing concern the colors would spook horses pulling the town’s distinctive trolleys. Councilmember Elizabeth Orona (no relation) voted the same way. “I want to ensure the gay community feels seen, recognized, safe, and important and welcomed,” she said.

In his closing statements, Clarke said he just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that banners hanging from city streetlights would make Solvang’s LGBTQIA+ residents feel any better about themselves. “I just don’t get that,” he said. He also seemed to want to punish Cavalli and his toy store for organizing a drag queen story and tea time that was ultimately canceled because of scheduling and budget considerations.

Clarke claimed it was in fact successful “heat from the GOP” that killed the event. “I don’t know what it is about men dressing as women and twerking in front of small children that is inclusive,” he said. “I’ll be called a bigot tomorrow,” he predicted. “I’ve been called a bigot before. I don’t care.”

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