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Commentary: Newport Beach can learn tolerance from Santa Ana

In his opening to "A Tale of Two Cities," Charles Dickens wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness."

This dichotomy has been starkly evident this week in the actions of a Newport Beach council member and the mayor and City Council of Santa Ana.

On Tuesday, Scott Peotter, a Newport Beach City Council member, emailed a bigoted and hateful statement in response to the Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling. His message went out under a picture of the official seal of the city of Newport Beach.

As part of his post, Peotter suggested that the LGBT community had appropriated the rainbow (flag) in an effort to spare God's retribution. He called the appropriation "wishful thinking." It is a hateful, appalling message, and Peotter should be condemned by every decent person.

Daily Pilot columnist Barbara Venezia broke the story and contacted me for comment. I had to read his statement several times. I was stunned.

I've been fighting hate and promoting civil rights in Orange County for more than a decade, much of that time monitoring neo-Nazi activity. I was featured on the front page of the largest neo-Nazi website in the nation, Stormfront, and called a "Jew loving, race traitor," so reading hateful statements isn't something that usually shocks me. Peotter's statement, however, both shocked and disturbed me.

That someone would imply that the LGBT community faces God's wrath isn't unusual. But to discover that an elected official holds such a hateful opinion, thinks the opinion is appropriate to voice and does so under the imprimatur of the Newport Beach city seal was beyond anything I have ever seen.

On the same day Peotter sent out his message, the LGBT community experienced another extraordinary event related to the Supreme Court's decision. The city of Santa Ana issued a proclamation to the LGBT Center OC celebrating the marriage equality victory.

Every member of the council and the mayor spoke individually about the importance of the decision. They called it a victory for the entire nation, a move toward fuller and greater equality. The statements were eloquent and moving. Folks in the audience at the council meeting were all given small rainbow flags to wave as we accepted the proclamation. That same day, Santa Ana flew the Rainbow Pride flag outside City Hall.

The LGBT Center OC is in Santa Ana. The LGBT Pride festival takes place in Santa Ana. The mayor and City Council members have spent time at the center. They know we provide lifesaving services for all Orange County residents, regardless of sexual orientation, and the city's leadership has long supported our work.

The support we receive from the leadership of Santa Ana couldn't have been more different from the statements by the Newport Beach City Council member and the response by city leaders. While two members of the Newport Beach council have made it clear they don't support Peotter's statement, none has officially condemned it. The rest of the council has remained silent. Silence in the face of such extraordinary hate and bigotry is complicity.

Newport Beach could send a very powerful message to the LGBT community and follow Santa Ana's example by publicly supporting us. The city should officially condemn Peotter. No city leader has yet called for his resignation.

Should Peotter choose not to resign, and I assume he won't since he has issued further statements supporting his view, Newport Beach residents have democratic avenues through which they can remove Peotter. Such action would be a powerful message of condemnation and a warning to other elected officials.

Thousands of LGBT people live in Newport Beach, and each has been personally affected by Peotter's hateful vitriol.

Peotter has said criticism of his hateful statement is an equally repugnant action, and an attempt to enforce political correctness and speech codes. Quite the opposite, in fact. We should hear his bigotry expressed in a public forum. It shines a bright light on his character.

KEVIN O'GRADY is executive director of the LGBT Center OC.

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