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How an ex-Temecula mayor’s barber helped him overcome bigotry against the LGBTQ community

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What do a 77-year-old staunch Republican and self-proclaimed “bigot” and a 25-year-old queer nonbinary barber covered in tattoos have in common?


But the two formed an unlikely friendship anyway.

What started as a chance encounter between Eli James “E.J.” Radford, who uses they and he pronouns, and Jeff Comerchero blossomed into a bond that both believe can be model for respecting others and overcoming biases.

Comerchero, a former Temecula mayor and city councilmember, and Temecula resident Radford self-published their new book, “The Old Man & the Queer” about their lives and — as the subtitle says — how Radford “freed him from bigotry.”

Jeff Comerchero, a former Temecula mayor and city councilmember, gets a haircut from Eli James “E.J.” Radford, who identifies as nonbinary, Wednesday, March 13, 2024, at E & E Barbershop in Temecula. The two co-wrote “The Old Man & the Queer,” which explains how meeting the hairstylist helped Comerchero overcome biases. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

Jeff Comerchero, a former Temecula mayor and city councilmember, gets his hair cut Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Temecula by Eli James “E.J.” Radford, who is nonbinary. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

Barber Eli James “E.J.” Radford gives former Temecula mayor and city councilmember Jeff Comerchero a haircut at E & E Barbershop in Temecula on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

“The Old Man & the Queer,” explores how former Temecula Mayor Jeff Comerchero overcame biases he had about the LGBTQ community. He co-wrote the book with Eli James “E.J.” Radford, who is nonbinary. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

Jeff Comerchero, a former Temecula mayor, on Wednesday, March 13, 2024, holds the book he co-wrote with hairstylist Eli James “E.J.” Radford, who is nonbinary. After meeting at E & E Barbershop in Temecula, the two developed a friendship that helped Comerchero overcome his past biases about the LGBTQ community. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

Jeff Comerchero, a former Temecula mayor and city councilmember, has his hair cut by Eli James “E.J.” Radford, who is nonbinary, at E & E Barbershop in Temecula on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

Eli James “E.J.” Radford gets a hug from Jeff Comerchero, left, Wednesday, March 13, 2024, at E & E Barbershop in Temecula. The former mayor and city councilmember got to know Radford, who is nonbinary, after he started cutting his hair. The pair collaborated on a book “The Old Man & the Queer,” that explores how the friendship helped Comerchero leave behind his biases about the LGBTQ community. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

Eli James “E.J.” Radford gives former Temecula mayor and councilman Jeff Comerchero a haircut Wednesday, March 13, 2024, at E & E Barbershop in Temecula. Radford and Comerchero became unlikely friends and co-wrote “The Old Man & the Queer,” which tells how meeting Radford helped Comerchero overcome his biases against the LGBTQ community. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)



The book is a memoir of their lives and what they learned from each other. Comerchero chronicles how he owned toy stores, served as mayor, his two decades of council work and meeting Radford. Radford writes about growing up in Temecula as a queer person in a devout religious household, living in a cult-like religious co-op in Hawaii and navigating gender identity.

“In all the realities of this world, our friendship should not exist, yet it does,” Comerchero wrote. “And if we’ve created a beautiful friendship in a world where people like us have been pitted against each other as enemies, I have hope … If we, who started so far apart, can come together with friendship, love, and understanding, there can be no excuse for intolerance and hate in the world.”

Unlikely friendship blooms in conservative town

Temecula, long known as a conservative area, has been a hotbed of political debate in the past year.

Led by a conservative majority, Temecula’s school board initially rejected a curriculum with supporting materials that mentioned LGBTQ historical figure Harvey Milk, who two board members called a “pedophile.” The Temecula Valley Unified School District board later adopted the curriculum after Gov. Gavin Newsom supported legislation that could have led to the district receiving a $1.5 million fine. The conservative members also banned teaching of critical race theory, though Temecula school officials said it never was taught in the district.

The conservative bloc also banned all flags except for U.S. and state flags, a move some called a veiled way of targeting pride flags. And it approved a policy requiring teachers and staff to tell parents if their children said they identify as transgender or nonbinary.

The divisiveness of Temecula politics today is “a shame,” said Comerchero, who was on the council 21 years, from 1997 to 2018. Now retired, he does some real estate and political consulting work.

“For me personally, I feel like everything that my colleagues and friends worked so hard to develop over the first 30 years of cityhood is being torn down to a certain degree and it’s painful,” said Comerchero, who’s lived in town since 1989.

Representatives of Riverside County LGBTQ groups praise the book, saying it could pave the way for people from different backgrounds to come together.

“Life experiences and human connection have the power to change peoples perspectives,” said Justin Daley, community outreach director for Temecula Valley Pride. “We are not born racist, hateful, or bigoted. These are learned character traits that, through life experience and human connection, can be un-learned.”

Troy Yu, marketing operator for the Riverside LGBTQ+ Pride Inc., said the group is aware of the “regular aggression Temecula’s leaders have recently taken against its LGBTQIA+ residents.”

“The idea that a conservative former mayor can keep learning and changing is something we all need to pay attention to right now,” Yu said. “The hateful attacks we are seeing all over the country these days are the result of willful refusal to be open to learning and empathy for anyone else.”

Like many queer people who live in or around Temecula and other cities where there have been challenges to LGBTQ+ rights, Radford said it’s scary being a queer and nonbinary resident.

“It’s definitely difficult to know that in this city that I live in and spend all of my time in, there’s almost a target on my back,” they said. “The safety of trans people, and queer people in general, is important.”

Recently Radford’s wife and her 9-year-old daughter moved to Temecula with them. Her attending school in a district with so many political battles and where Radford feels LGBTQ+ rights are being limited is frightening.

“In today’s political climate, trans people are a major target for hate,” Radford wrote in the book. “We have existed long before we became political propaganda, and we will continue to be around no matter how hard people try to eradicate us.”

A chance haircut leads to dropping biases

The co-authors met in 2021 after Comerchero got a gift certificate for a haircut and shave at Radford’s shop, E & E Barbershop, which they co-rents with friend Eddie Sanchez.

Jeff Comerchero, a former Temecula mayor and city councilmember, co-wrote “The Old Man & the Queer” with his barber Eli James “E.J.” Radford. It tells of the pair’s unlikely friendship and how it led to Comerchero overcoming biases he held against the LGBTQ community. (Courtesy of Jeff Comerchero)

Upon first seeing Radford in the Margarita Road salon, Comerchero said he struggled to determine Radford’s gender and sexuality. He was unsettled by that and other aspects of Radford’s appearance.

“Mostly, it was the tattoos,” he said of Radford, who has large black-and-white tattoos that cover most of their right arm, a prominent neck tattoo and various leg tattoos.

Having grown up in a Jewish household in Brooklyn, New York, and with many ancestors killed in the Holocaust, Comerchero said he was raised to see tattoos as taboo. One sect of Judaism even says one can’t be buried in a religious ceremony if they have tattoos, he said.

Comerchero had an initial thought: he’d never let this barber put a hand on him.

“I never considered myself to have biases, so it caught me off guard,” Comerchero said. “I didn’t like it and wanted to confront what I was thinking and feeling.”

Yet Comerchero thought Radford was talented at styling hair.

Before meeting Radford, Comerchero said he had virtually no knowledge of someone who considers themself nonbinary, which means a person doesn’t identify as a man or woman. He also knew little about LGBTQ+ issues.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Comerchero said.

On Radford’s end, they had their own assumptions of Comerchero.

Radford wasn’t sure what to make small talk about or how much to reveal in conversation, assuming that Comerchero would likely be biased against LGBTQ+ people — or even homophobic.

Radford wondered if Comerchero had booked the haircut by mistake.

“I don’t expect people that look like him to be even remotely interested in caring about my identities and asking questions because most people are just like, ‘Don’t tell me more, I don’t want to know,’” Radford said.

After what both called an awkward first appointment, Comerchero liked Radford’s work and continued to book haircuts and shaves. Through many appointments, they kept learning about each other’s lives, eventually forming a friendship.

“I just came to the realization, once I really got to know Eli, that there’s a beautiful person in there and that’s really what life’s about,” Comerchero said.

He went to the first appointment to prove to himself that he wasn’t biased. In the end, Comerchero said he left with a new friendship and an evolving knowledge of LGBTQ+ identities and nuances taught by Radford through their discussions.

“Jeff and I were willing to admit that maybe we were wrong about each other’s first assumptions,” Radford said. “Jeff was willing to be open minded and learn, he was very non judgmental. I’m thankful that we were both willing to learn.”

Still, Radford said he purposefully shared bits and pieces about his identity with Comerchero over time, not all at once.

“I’m not normally too out and loud about being trans or my pronouns right when I meet clients, especially with my clients being in Temecula,” Radford said. “I really don’t know how people are gonna react so I’m not very forward about it for safety.”

As an example, Radford said that everyday on the drive to work they see someone on the street holding what he called transphobic and homophobic signs.

Bond offers hope for building understanding

Radford chose to open up because, even if Comerchero was honest about what he didn’t know, he showed genuine curiosity.

“I realized if I want to be honest with someone who doesn’t know anything, I have to be willing to educate them to some degree, because otherwise, they’re never going to know the information that I want them to know,” Radford said. “As a queer person, you do get sick and tired of being the educator, but you have to tell people how you feel for others to know and maybe do better.”

Since the friendship began, Comerchero said there have been times he felt that — had he not met Radford — he would have continued to perpetuate biases against LGBTQ+ people. Before meeting Radford, he believed that sexual organs directly relate to gender identity and that sexuality is obvious based on how one presents themself. In the book, Comerchero calls himself a “bigot.”

Both said writing the book expanded their dialogue on the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, Radford only shared their nonbinary identity with Comerchero during the project.

Related links

How conservatives could regain control of Temecula’s school board
Temecula leaders turning right as critics try to slam the brakes
Temecula’s critical race theory ban, transgender policy stand for now, judge rules
Temecula student passes out pride flags to protest ‘targeted’ school policies
How Southern California stylists are providing safe spaces for queer and transgender clients

Last year, Comerchero was asked whether Temecula should make a proclamation celebrating Pride Month, He realized Radford’s impact on his life when he found himself supporting the proclamation.

“He said to me, ‘Before I got to know you, I would not have supported this proclamation; lesson learned,’” Radford said. “When he told me this, it brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes, I lose hope that people can learn and change and possibly make a difference, but Jeff reminded me that it can happen if people are willing.”

Nowadays, Comerchero tries to assume less when he meets people and to stick less strictly to the gender roles with which he was raised.

“It’s not just Eli that I see in a different light,” he said. “It’s everyone who doesn’t quite fit into the boxes into which we put them.”

Comerchero and Radford will sign their book, which can be purchased on Amazon, at the Ronald H. Roberts Temecula Public Library on Thursday, April 4. They’ll also take part in a question-and-answer session at the event, which is from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

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