Pride Month — Fresno’s Tower District

When I was 11 years old back in the early 1960s, my parents purchased a two-story house on Van Ness Avenue, about half a mile south of Fresno’s Tower District. It may not be as famous as San Francisco’s Castro District, but the Tower and its annual Gay Pride Parade apparently are well known in LGBTQ+ circles.

I can’t report on the Tower District today because I haven’t lived in Fresno for nearly 30 years, and when I visit my friends and family there, I can’t miss the changes.

For example, the Tower Theatre, for which the district is named, used to be a grand old movie theatre. I saw “A Hard Day’s Night” there in 1964 as the young girls screamed hysterically at a black and white movie. It morphed into a performing arts center that recently closed to become a church — a church where the walls are adorned with nymphs bathed in black light. Go figure. The city of Fresno now allows street vendors and taco trucks, and they are everywhere in the Tower and throughout the city. When I moved out of town all those years ago, the big community gripe was how the “northenders” had discovered and invaded the district and their very presence in such large numbers was overwhelming the old neighborhood feel. I moved away, so I don’t know how all that turned out, but I’m guessing the aliens may have taken over.

I loved and celebrate the Tower District of my youth, and I feel blessed beyond any words I could ever express to have grown up in such a welcoming, inclusive and accepting environment. After I moved out of my parents’ house, I nearly always lived in or near the Tower District. If I didn’t live there, I certainly hung out there. It’s my favorite part of Fresno. I couldn’t stay away.

It’s probably not a very valid comparison, but I imagine in some ways the Tower District of my youth may have been something like the old Greenwich Village because so many musicians, writers, poets, actors, theatre directors, film makers, photographers, painters, political activists, Wiccans, new age crystal worshippers, artists and weirdos of every stripe gravitated to live in the old neighborhood. Live theatres, entertainment venues, bars and nightspots, my all-time favorite music store, Archer’s Music, and, of course, the never-to-be-forgotten Café Midi lined the streets. Life there was just so cool, so incredibly interesting, a place where something completely amazing and unexpected could raise its curious head at any moment, a place where one could be oneself simply because that’s who you were. No judgment. No hated. No fear. No prejudice. It almost seems like a dream when I look back on that time and place of my youth. I found it a delight to live in such a neighborhood and share it with all its colorful and unusual residents.

This art nouveau chicken is only one of several chicken sculptures that decorated Fresno’s Chicken Pie Shop — once a popular eatery in Fresno’s Tower District.

If I stopped at the Chicken Pie Shop for breakfast or lunch or dinner, it was a gathering spot for all the neighborhood folks. I knew almost everyone there, so there was always someone to eat and talk with about music, poetry, politics or our personal troubles du jour. I will miss the freedom and joy of those casual interactions among such a diverse group of friends until the day I die.

Of course, the gays were there — the Tower District is Fresno’s gay district. I realize many fear gay people. I do not because those fears are unfounded. I’m sure there are some who have made a choice to be gay, but the gay people I know will tell you it’s not a choice — they were born that way. At about the same age straight people started being attracted to the opposite sex, gay folks found themselves unexpectedly attracted to members of their own sex. The scientists tell us an estimated 11 percent of the population is gay. That’s a lot of folks. Should I feel threatened by them? I’m not. Not in the least.

Many fear if we acknowledge gay people, they will influence our children to be gay. I can tell you there is absolutely nothing a gay person can do to turn me gay. Can’t be done. I also must point out there is nothing I can do to turn a gay person straight. That can’t be done, either, despite what you might hear in some circles.

For those who are afraid, let me tell you this to maybe calm your nerves a little. In all my years living around gay people, only one of them made his desire for me unbearable when I was a teenager. As I look back at him, I realize he was actually a pedophile who also happened to be gay, not a gay who happened to be a pedophile. The pedophilia came first, I’m sure. I learned a valuable lesson from my encounters with him about consent. I never wanted to make a woman who wasn’t interested in me feel the way he made me feel, and I never have. I realized no means no — an important lesson we all should learn.

With that one single exception, everyone I’ve known in the gay community has always freely accepted and respected my sexual orientation and never pushed its desires upon me. As I write this today, I believe I owe that community the same equal consideration. Have I been asked to play? Sure, but all it took was a polite thanks but no thanks from me to end all that. I’m a straight guy, so there’s absolutely no reason for a gay man to chase me too hard. I am not his catch. I never will be.

I can tell you this from my own experience — I have absolutely nothing to fear from the LGBTQ+ community. Neither do you.