This seaside artist colony has been an island for gays amid the conservative life styles of Orange County since it was founded in the early 1900s.
Despite the county’s reputation as staid and family oriented, city and gay leaders estimate between 18% and 30% of Laguna Beach’s population is homosexual.
“Laguna is like a separate planet from the rest of the county,” said one lesbian professional living in Laguna Niguel.
“I wouldn’t live in Southern California if I couldn’t live in the Laguna area,” the 38-year-old woman said. “I’ve met some of the smallest minds ever in Orange County.”
Homosexual residents don’t agree on what attracted them, but they do agree they are growing in numbers in the area.
Diversity of Artists
Many cite the city’s white sand and blue water, while others say they were attracted to Laguna’s diverse array of local artists. The town, 40 miles south of Los Angeles, was even founded by a group of artists.
Some said they were lured by the city’s liberal life styles and open acceptance.
“Laguna Beach has a long history of pluralism,” said Robert Gentry, a gay councilman for the city. “People not only accept the diversity, they celebrate it.”
Steve Peskind, a co-coordinator for the AIDS Response Program at the county’s Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County, agreed many gays may be attracted to Laguna because of its openness.
Reputation as Liberal
“The town has a reputation of being more liberal,” he said. “And it has a history of being a warm and receptive place for adventuring souls.”
The free-spirited souls Peskind referred to account for a striking difference between the Laguna area and other cities in Orange County.
At 51.8%, Laguna Beach’s non-family population is almost double the countywide average of 28.2%. More than 50% of the town’s rental units house only one person.
But, similar to most of their countywide neighbors, Laguna residents are generally white-collar professionals with better than average incomes.
In addition, the city’s gay population tends to fare even better because they generally aren’t raising families.
Some Hide Homosexuality
“This is where the gays with money live that don’t have penthouses in San Francisco,” commented a gay financial analyst.
And yet, many gay residents of Laguna hide their homosexuality, despite the overall acceptance of the community.
Frank Newman, co-chairman of Laguna Outreach, a gay support group, estimated that two-thirds of the city’s gay populace is closeted.
“One of the problems with reaching gays in Laguna Beach is . . . people go there to isolate themselves,” said Randy Pesqueira, a co-coordinator of the gay and lesbian center’s AIDS Response Program.
Gentry, one of the founders of Laguna Outreach, said he formed the nonpolitical, non-religious organization to give gays a place to socialize and to convince them it’s all right to be gay.
Group Shifts Emphasis
Since its founding, however, the group has changed its emphasis from “It’s OK to be gay,” to “It’s no different to be gay,” Newman said.
Governed by a 14-member board, the group has at times helped to bridge Laguna’s gay and heterosexual communities on gay issues.
“They’ve done a lot of educational things,” said the Rev. Barbara Mudge, of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, where the group holds its monthly meetings.
“They’re a forum for the interchange of ideas, not an advocacy group. They want to live in a nice community, contribute and fight against the terrible stereotypes about gays. They’re a neat bunch of people.”
Nick Hertneck, 29, of Laguna Niguel, said he revealed his homosexuality while attending high school in Fullerton, after talking to an uncle who lived in Laguna Beach.
“I asked him where the gay people were, and he showed me,” Hertneck said.