Gay Wine Weekend a time to reflect, relax after Orlando nightclub shooting

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Steve Yacovelli left downtown Orlando, Fla., and came to California just as news of the nation’s worst mass shooting spread across the city, the nation and the world. Yacovelli, 45, and his husband, Richard Egan, 53, live about a mile from Pulse, a gay nightclub where a massacre claimed the lives of 49 people and injured 53 others early Sunday.

Yacovelli said he could hear helicopters flying overhead responding to the horrific scene, and details of the shooting began emerging in his Facebook feed.

On Friday, five days after the shooting, Yacovelli and Egan attended a reception for the kickoff of the popular Gay Wine Weekend in Sonoma Valley. In the Rodeo room of MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa, the couple, along with dozens of others, sipped red and white wines and ate hors d’oeuvres, enjoying a moment of levity, laughter and smiles after a week of deep sorrow and anger.

Yacovelli said he, Egan and their friends considered not attending the weekend event, which attracts gay and lesbian couples from all over the world. But they did not want an act of homophobia to dictate their lives.

“We discussed it ... should we or shouldn’t we? We decided if we don’t, then they win,” he said.

For many attending Friday night’s reception, the weekend promises more than fun. It’s an opportunity for members of the LGBT community to gather as a cohesive group, and it’s a place to discuss what needs to be done to address the violence that is currently targeting them.

“We are a community that has always faced adversity our entire lives,” said Gary Saperstein, who co-founded Out in the Vineyard, a Sonoma-based tour and event company that puts on the three-day event. Started in 2011, it is expected to attract 600 or 700 people this year.

“And especially since the ’80s and the AIDS crisis,” Saperstein said. “We came together as a community and said, ‘Hello, people are dying here!’ And so we rose up and we finally got the government to listen — that’s something that we’ve always just done as a community, even all the way up to last year with marriage equality. We fought and fought for that.”

Saperstein and others attending the reception Friday said the Orlando shooting has prompted the LGBT community to take a close look both at the violence against them and its most deadly instrument: guns.

On Friday, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group, announced it would begin pushing for the adoption of “common-sense gun violence prevention measures.” These include “limiting access to assault-style rifles, expanding background checks, and limiting the ability for suspected terrorists and those with a history of domestic abuse to access guns,” according to the group’s website.

The move comes as the rate of hate crimes against members of the LGBT community is on the rise. The New York Times reported this week that the rate of hate crimes targeting the LGBT community had surpassed those against all other minorities, including Jews and African Americans. Firearms are the most common weapons used in homicides of members of the LGBT community, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

“Forty-nine members of our community were murdered on Sunday morning because of a toxic combination of two things: a deranged, unstable individual who had been conditioned to hate LGBTQ people, and easy access to military-style guns,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a statement released Friday.

Griffin said it was “imperative” both issues be addressed to make the LGBT community safer.

Mark Volger, Saperstein’s business partner and co-founder of Out in the Vineyard, said the Orlando shooting has brought both national and international attention to the sort of violence that the LGBT community “faces every single day.”

In some ways, said Yacovelli, the shooting is helping to recruit allies, even as some who abhor the gay community celebrate the mass shooting.

“The community is not just Orlando; it’s not just LGBT. It’s everyone having so much empathy for the pain that we’re all facing,” he said. “It’s changing people’s perception of the gay community, giving them a better understanding of who we are, that we’re just people like anyone else.”

Sonoma Mayor Laurie Gallian, who attended the reception, echoed her support for the LGBT community and the collective fight to restrict the use of assault weapons.

“We’re going to come out of this bigger, better and bolder, because we are a community,” Gallian said, adding that she supports the right to bear arms but not the proliferation of military weapons on American streets. “Are we just going to continue to have one incident after another and have no action to stop assault weapons?”

Egan, Yacovelli’s husband, said he was confident the highly vocal and politically savvy LGBT community could help push for sensible gun restrictions.

“If we can make gay marriage legal in every state, getting rid of assault rifles should not be that hard,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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