CORONADO, California -- Coronado -- or “The Island,” as some locals call it -- is usually a place to unwind, celebrate and feel welcomed. Beautiful beaches, locally owned businesses and historic landmarks give Coronado the unmistakable feel of a relaxed island community, New England-style. But that was not the case for Arizona couple Oscar De Las Salas and Gary Jackson on their wedding day, so a group of four women vowed to find out why and try to make it right on behalf of the entire community.
Oscar and Gary were in the midst of their wedding vows on Aug. 17 on a sunny Sunday at Centennial Park on Coronado Island. The festive atmosphere was soon interrupted by a voice screaming homophobic slurs and epithets. Even though the wedding ceremony continued, a feeling of despair and disappointment wafted over what should have been a joyous occasion.
“My first thought,” Gary said, “was that it was someone in the park making noise, and then I heard the slurs, so I knew that this was more than a random passing attack. And when it continued, I had to make a decision whether to react and do something in response or to continue with this day that we had been planning for a long time.”
Choosing to ignore the heckler, who cowardly hid from view on a nearby condo balcony, the couple continued with their vows, but the other groom was still clearly upset.
“As a Latino and gay man,” Oscar said, “I deal with prejudice doubly, especially in the Southwest – so I tend to be more reactive when I feel attacked. This felt like an attack to me. And to have this happen on my wedding day made me extremely angry and ready to take action.”
Oscar retained his composure and refrained from taking action. But four women on the island, who read about the verbal assault against the gay couple, are not so willing to move on after hearing about the homophobic incident that gave Coronado a black eye in the national media. Alisa Kerr, Rita Alipour, Kate Blumenthal and Cerissa McPartlin Kieffer, who comprise The Islander Ladies Club, read about the story separately, but each knew instantly that something had to be done not only for Coronado’s sake, but to regain some peace of mind for the grooms.
The Islander Ladies Club members are Alisa Kerr, Rita Alipour, Kate Blumenthal and Cerissa McPartlin Kieffer
“I think we all saw it around the same time,” Kerr said, “because it was posted on the community pages. There were all the comments; people saying this is a disgrace, and this is so sad and horrible. I was kinda like, let’s fix it.”
After some investigation into the incident, and watching a video of the event, the ladies decided to band together and offer an olive branch to the couple, not just because the island’s reputation depended on it, but because there was also considerable humanity at stake.
One member of the club, Kate Blumenthal, said she felt sorry for the grooms.
“The look on Gary and Oscar’s faces, when they’re standing out there and they have to turn around and hear these things,” Blumenthal said. “They looked so quizzical as well they should be. It just didn’t need to happen, period. It made me think back to my wedding. When you’re standing there looking at the person you love and you’re getting distracted by these horrible things, it wasn’t fair. It just made me sad that they had to look and wonder why this was happening.”
All of the members of The Islander’s Ladies Club seem to agree that the situation was both saddening and aggravating. Rita Alipour, another club member, says that she feels nobody has the right to ruin a public celebration based on their feelings about the participants. “Unless somebody attacks you, just let people go, let people live, and I can’t imagine inserting myself into somebody’s wedding and being so hateful,” Alipour said.
What started out as four friends talking about their dismay over a sour situation has turned into a project of love, redemption and acceptance. The ladies created a plan: offering Oscar and Gary an apology by asking them back to Coronado, having a little party and renewing their vows. Oscar and Gary tearfully accepted, but it became much more than just the little “get together” the women had in mind.
After Oscar and Gary’s acceptance, Kerr called George Allen, the general manager at Loews Resort in San Diego, to ask for support. “I was just going to ask him to donate a room for the night,” she said, “a wedding suite for them. So I told him what happened and he immediately wrote me back and said we’ll do the room and we’ll do anything else you guys want; we’ll host the whole event, just tell me what you want.”
From there the outpouring of support became immense. Alipour set up a Facebook page Coronadolovesoscarandgary.com, and they started a gofundme.com page to raise money. Within six hours the phones were ringing with people wanting to help. “We already started to get florists on board, photographers,” Alipour said. “I was getting texts, we’ll do a cake -- so many people that automatically just jumped in.”
The whole island seemed to want to be a part of this wedding. Not only were there people volunteering to bake goods, they were also asking to set up chairs, and watch children. Kerr says that people just wanted to be a part of this mass apology to Oscar and Gary. Even Coronado Mayor Casey Tanaka will attend, officiating the grooms in their renewal of vows.
With the “re-do” now set to happen on Saturday, Oct 11, and security planned to be very tight to prevent any trouble, The Islander Ladies Club has only days to plan and organize a large wedding. But it seems that they are not alone. With such an outpouring of support, and despite a police investigation, Coronado seems to be place that has served up its own kind of justice: to react by action.
The grooms said they are very grateful and overwhelmed with joy at the chance to renew their vows in Coronado. Jackson expressed how much he feels about the generous deeds of The Islander Ladies Club and the city of Coronado itself.
“So these women,” Jackson said, “did something extraordinary in coordinating a happening of this generosity for two strangers. We are a bit overwhelmed at the wonderful response from the community, the local vendors, and people from all over, and we are hopeful that the actions of this group of women can empower other communities to take a stand like this.”
The Islander Ladies Club was obviously moved by Oscar and Gary’s experience. Some of them say that they want their children to understand how much good is out there, and the opportunity to do something positive might make someone else’s road a little easier.
Kerr gets the final thought:
“We all have the responsibility to contribute to society. For every act of bad we need to counter it with an equal or greater level of good. And that’s the opportunity that we’ve been presented, and we took it. The comments on Facebook are nice, but the action is what matters. I would like to see more action.”