Russ Thompson is gay, and proud of it. Still, Thompson had qualms last year when he learned that homosexual leaders in Long Beach were planning a gay-pride parade down busy Ocean Boulevard.
"I was a little skeptical about gay citizens marching down the street," Thompson, 32, recalled recently. "For gays, Long Beach has been a relatively happy, relatively peaceful place. I really didn't understand the necessity of such a public display."
Despite his misgivings, Thompson attended the parade, watching as other homosexuals bearing placards and banners marched past him through a veil of rain. As he stood there, Thompson wept, and his doubts began to ebb.
"I'm not typically a flag-waver for a cause, but sometimes flags need to be waved," said Thompson, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at USC. "It changed my attitude. And I'm sure I'm not alone."
He's not alone.
Many homosexuals in Long Beach, who historically have steered clear of activism, in recent years have begun to reject their low-profile approach to civic affairs and carve a more visible niche in the city's political landscape.
More Serious About Politics
While still less vocal than their counterparts in such gay meccas as San Francisco and West Hollywood, homosexuals in Long Beach--estimated to number between 30,000 and 50,000 out of the city's population of 380,000--are emerging as serious political players.
Most recently, gays and lesbians have captured the public spotlight during a prolonged battle with Long Beach officials and conservative Christian groups over plans for a second gay-pride parade and festival, to be held this weekend at Shoreline Aquatic Park.
There are other signs that the city's homosexual population is experiencing a political coming of age.
Doors to the area's power brokers, shut tight to gays and lesbians less than a decade ago, have begun to creak open, according to Rob Kramme, president of the Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club, a largely homosexual political group with 200 members.
"When the club was founded eight years ago, not a single council member or area legislator would sit down across the table from an openly gay man or lesbian and talk to them about the political struggle," Kramme said. "But now we have candidates for public office coming to speak to our club around election time, quite openly courting our vote. As politicians realize, we have money and we have numbers."
In recent years, several gays have been appointed to city commissions and committees. Planning Commissioner Richard Gaylord, who is gay, made a bid for a council seat in 1982, finishing a respectable second in a five-candidate field to incumbent Eunice Sato. And a handful of local gays and lesbians attended the 1984 Democratic National Convention as delegates.
Finally, many gay leaders are planning a push for a municipal non-discrimination ordinance. They maintain that such legislation, which has been approved in eight California cities including Los Angeles, Laguna Beach and West Hollywood, is needed because of Gov. George Deukmejian's veto last year of Assembly bill 1, which would have established a statewide non-discrimination law for homosexuals.
"Politicians need to wake up and see that we are a viable force in the community," said Patty Moore, co-owner of a gay dance club and an active participant in local political circles. "I see in the very near future, if not the next election, that a gay will be on the council."
Despite such confidence, and the political strides gays and lesbians have made in Long Beach, there exists a formidable wall of opposition to their efforts.
Vocal and well-organized church groups have banded together to block what they maintain is an effort by homosexuals to take control of the city.
"Their goal is to make Long Beach another San Francisco," said Pastor Donald Richardson of the Grace Brethren Church in Long Beach. "They want to make it a capital for homosexuality. They're chipping away, and they're going right at the heart of our community."
Scores of local religious leaders have formed the Long Beach Coalition for Traditional Values to make sure their voices are heard--and heeded--in the city's political dialogue. Ultimately, the coalition hopes to scour the community of any influence by the city's gays and lesbians. Leaders of the group say they plan to politicize the gay issue, supporting council candidates who embrace their views during the 1986 races.
Group Targets Moral Issues
Craig Garbe, employed full time as chairman of the coalition, said the group began forming in January and now draws on more than 60,000 Long Beach church members, including mostly evangelical Christians and Baptists, for support. The coalition is also against abortion, the proliferation of alcohol and pornography.
Garbe, 28, said the organization is associated with the California Coalition for Traditional Values, one of the groups that worked to defeat statewide gay rights legislation last year.
As Garbe sees it, the battle has just begun.
"Homosexuality threatens our traditional values," Garbe said. "It threatens our family unit. It threatens our little children.
"In the word of God, homosexuality is a sin, just as much as lying is, or stealing or adultery."
Garbe said the group, which tried to stop city approval of this weekend's festival, will work to stop any future gay-pride parades. "Take away these parades and you inflict a severe blow on the homosexual movement," he said. "They are using those parades to foist their beliefs on the young people of today."
Garbe and other opponents have pointed to the spread of AIDS, a disease that has primarily hit homosexual men in this country, to buttress their stand against homosexuality.
Kramme and other gay and lesbian leaders, meanwhile, say the Christians are exploiting the AIDS issue to whip up "a rising tide of homophobia," the fear of homosexuals.
"I only fear the fundamentalists because they're extremely well organized and well funded," Kramme said. "It bothers me that a group of people who base their life on a Christian ethic can be so verbally violent to a group of people."
Interpretation of Bible 'Narrow'
The Rev. Dusty Pruitt of the Metropolitan Community Church of Long Beach, a 200-member congregation that is predominately gay, said the fundamentalists have taken a narrow view of the Bible in their attack on homosexuals.
"They would like to take ancient scripture, lift it up and apply it to modern Western culture," she said. "They have their opinion, but we think they're sincerely wrong."
Although political activism has simmered in Long Beach's homosexual community for several years, it was not until recently that a group of gays and lesbians took an aggressive stand on a matter that affects them. That issue is the battle over the upcoming gay-pride festival and parade.
The event has been tangled in controversy. Members of Long Beach Lesbian and Gay Pride Inc., the nonprofit group organizing the event, charge that city officials have laid down numerous bureaucratic roadblocks in an effort to sabotage the event, an allegation Long Beach officials have steadfastly denied.
Nonetheless, leaders of the group recently filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city, alleging city officials were wrong in charging them $18,000 for police supervision and city services that promoters of other events have received at little or no cost. City officials say that the fees are necessary to reimburse them for providing police supervision of the parade that will shut down Ocean Boulevard, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city.
On Monday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge refused to issue an injunction that would have barred the city from requiring payment of the fees. The festival's backers say they will contest the matter, and they insist the parade and festival will be held.
More Visible in Community
"This whole dispute over the parade amounts to the emotional coming out for the lesbian and gay community in Long Beach," said Judith Doyle, president of Long Beach Lesbian and Gay Pride Inc. "Prior to this, the community was very closeted, very conservative. Too many gay leaders in Long Beach were of a mind that if they didn't make waves they would be able to establish their presence."
While San Fransisco and other cities with active homosexual populations have been staging gay-pride parades for 15 years, last year's event was the first of its type in Long Beach.
Doyle said many homosexuals, particularly those who own businesses in the city, were opposed to the event while it was in the planning stages because they felt it would "show our worst negative stereotypes on the streets of Long Beach and give people all the reason in the world for oppression."
The parade and festival came off without a hitch, and many homosexuals began to view the event in a more positive light, she said. Nonetheless, a number of homosexuals--and a sizable percentage of the heterosexual community--still see the parade as a distasteful display of the gay life style.
"Many people see it as an attempt to shove gay pride down people's throats," said Gaylord. "It's kind of a paradox. Every gay person wants to be accepted, yet to do so they have to say what they are and risk offending people."
Festival Divides Council
The City Council has been sharply divided over the festival. Councilman Warren Harwood, who was in the minority on a 5-4 vote to shorten the two-day festival by half, said the event's organizers are "setting back their relations with the council significantly."
"My perception is that this is a handful of people making all the decisions and organizing this confrontation," Harwood said. "I see it as something that is polarizing the gay community and other segments of the city."
Mike Brown, executive director of the Unified Community Service Center, a social service agency for homosexuals in Long Beach, said members of the "straight community" generally have "a sort of benign acceptance" of the city's large homosexual population.
"So many people in Long Beach came here from the Midwest and they still retain those values," Brown said. "It's almost like they have a kind of farm independence, an attitude of 'I'll mind my business if you'll mind yours and we'll all get along.' "
Gay and lesbian leaders like Doyle insist such events must be held in order to "crystallize" the political beliefs of the homosexual community.
"There's only political power because there are numbers," she said. "If those numbers were ever actually organized into one front, the gay and lesbian community would be awesome. But our community is not together. That's exactly the purpose of the parade and festival."
Homosexual leaders say they need to build political strength to further their goals, particularly the effort to win approval for a non-discrimination ordinance. Although it is still in the planning stages, some gay leaders are privately questioning whether the legislation will ever get off the ground.
While the task of garnering council support would be formidable, many homosexual leaders say the true political test would come after the council approved a non-discrimination ordinance.
"If an ordinance was approved, the possibility for a referendum to repeal it would be real high," said Lorna Albertson, a former Lambda president. "Are we ready for that? I don't think so."
Garbe, the chairman of the Coalition for Traditional Values, promises his group would vigorously oppose such legislation, which the group sees as a validation of homosexuality.
"If the council approves something like that, the churches would scream bloody murder," Garbe said. "There would be referendums, there would be recalls of council members."
Need for New Law Questioned
Mayor Ernie Kell and several other council members, meanwhile, have questioned whether the ordinance is needed, insisting they have seen no signs that gays are discriminated against in Long Beach.
"They have to produce some evidence that they are being discriminated against, and I don't think they have," Kell said. "Just making laws for the purpose of making laws is not something I agree with."
Gay leaders are attempting to document specific cases of discrimination but admit it will be a difficult task.
"What I see is a situation where people are reluctant to reveal that they're gay out of a fear of losing their jobs," Pruitt of the Metropolitan Community Church said.
A non-discrimination ordinance would help alleviate such situations, Kramme said, by giving legal backing to homosexuals who fear reprisals from their employers.
And if an ordinance were in place, gays say, it could have a ripple effect to other issues affecting gays, particularly problems with alleged police harassment.
Last year, Lambda tried unsuccessfully to get the department to use uniformed officers to patrol parks frequented by homosexuals rather than undercover officers. Currently, the group is working with the department to develop a program at the city's police training academy to educate officers on homosexuality. As yet no program is in place.
Civil Rights Struggle
Dealings with local politicians have been somewhat more successful. Gay leaders see council members Wallace Edgerton, Marc Wilder and James Wilson as their most vocal supporters. Edgerton and Wilder have large contingents of homosexuals in their shoreline districts, while Wilson compares the battle for gay rights to the civil rights struggles for blacks.
Albertson said many politicians have developed a trust of the gay community only after meeting homosexual community leaders and "realizing we're just like anyone else."
Edgerton, in particular, has done an about-face. When he first joined the council nearly a decade ago, Edgerton was opposed to homosexuality. But after working closely on issues affecting the city with several homosexuals, Edgerton said he realized "the problem was mine, not theirs. I had an albatross of prejudice around my neck." Today, Edgerton is among the most vocal backers of the city's gay community.
That support, however, goes only so far. For example, both Edgerton and Wilder declined to serve as grand marshals for the Sunday gay-pride parade. Edgerton said he thought it would be inappropriate to serve such a role for a small segment of the community while Wilder said he declined because he will be out of town.
Other council members, particularly Councilwoman Euncie Sato, are viewed as outright foes by gay leaders. Sato admits she feels gays should keep their sexual orientation "personal and private instead of public" and sympathizes with people who find the homosexuality repugnant.
"I think it's unfortunate when those who are not on the same side as the gays are looked on as Bible-waving extremists," Sato said. "They're not. They're just general run-of-the-mill people who have some values."
Efforts by gay candidates to win a council seat, meanwhile, have run into obstacles.
Gaylord attempted during his campaign to steer clear of the issue of his sexual orientation but had it used as a weapon against him in anonymous mailers.
"I have never made my sexual orientation an issue," he said in a recent interview. "It's certainly not my claim to fame and it's not the reason I ran. It happens to be my life style, but in no way is it connected to my politics."
Other homosexuals have run for the council without publicly revealing their sexual orientation. One such candidate who ran in 1980--and who asked that his name not be used because he is considering another run for office-- said he felt prejudice could work both ways.
"I don't think someone should vote for me because I'm gay. Prejudice both ways is damaging, because you haven't made the good, hard decisions on whether the candidate is the right person," he said.
During the contest, the ex-candidate said, anonymous mailers were sent to conservatives in the community revealing his sexual orientation. In addition, anonymous mailers were sent to gay residents saying the man was a heterosexual."You do have that narrow opinion in the gay community that you should elect one of our own," he said, "and that's just as bad as heterosexuals wanting to elect heterosexuals."
While Gaylord feels Long Beach voters are willing to elect a gay or lesbian to the council, he said a militant homosexual would not fare well.
"It's a real thin line," he said. "I have no problem with being honest about being gay, but I do have a problem with making something an issue that's a non-issue."