Crucial Debates Ahead : After Slow Start, O.C. Gays Making Inroads
At the podium of a Disneyland Hotel ballroom stood Thomas F. Riley, retired Marine Corps general who is chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, lauding the contributions of two members of the community. The subject of his praise: a gay couple who had worked to combat AIDS and discrimination against homosexuals.
Even Mickey Mouse--the cartoon embodiment of American wholesomeness, family virtues and dreams--was there roaming the black-tie audience, shaking hands and posing for pictures with some of the 700 homosexual men and women there.
For honoree Don Hagan, that April evening was hugely significant in demonstrating the inroads that he and others in the gay community have made in Orange County.
‘Change in Attitudes’
“It was a symbol of the change in attitudes, in acceptance, here in Orange County. That was something you would never have seen here even three or four years ago,” he said.
The gay movement in Orange County, slower in developing than in other urban centers around the state, is now seeking, with unprecedented visibility, to flex its political muscle in an effort to combat the discrimination and bias that gay leaders assert is the unfortunate byproduct of the AIDS epidemic.
But even as gay leaders seek to overcome splits within their ranks and make their presence felt by the community at large, they have been met by a ferocious attack from opponents--led primarily by the religious right--who assert the “immorality” of the homosexual life style.
“The homosexuals are going for broke these days, clearly,” declared the Rev. Louis Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition in Anaheim and a fierce anti-gay activist. “They have decided this is their hour to strike.”
“The battle is now, and the community as a whole is going to have to decide if it’s going to accept this repugnant behavior as somehow ‘normal.’ I don’t think they will.”
At no time in the development of the gay political movement in Orange County has this political clash been seen more vividly than in the events of recent weeks and months:
* In Santa Ana, a group dominated by those of the religious right is seeking to halt plans for a Gay Pride Festival that organizers bill as the largest cultural celebration of the homosexual community ever held in the county. As opponents of the festival pressed City Council members to revoke the event’s permit, several hundred gay-rights activists met them head-on several weeks ago outside City Hall with chants of “Two, four, six, eight--Orange County ain’t so straight!”
* In Irvine, a group of residents is trying to persuade voters to approve a November ballot initiative that would delete the words “sexual orientation” from the city’s human rights ordinance, thereby removing homosexuals from the protection other minorities have against discrimination.
* In Corona del Mar, a high school psychology teacher earlier this year was ordered to stop his 19-year practice of inviting homosexuals to speak to his class after opposition mounted from at least 70 parents in the district. Opponents maintained that such a program could encourage homosexuality and do more harm than good for children.
* And in the most far-reaching clash to date on the sensitive issue, the county Board of Supervisors last month rejected a measure that would have outlawed discrimination against AIDS victims in housing, employment and public services. Although the measure was pitched by some supporters as largely symbolic, the three supervisors who opposed it in a split vote maintained that the measure needlessly duplicated existing laws.
Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who supported the measure along with Riley, lamented later that the vote would only solidify Orange County’s image as a “recalcitrant” community that has not yet achieved an urban outlook.
Sheldon calls these four emotionally charged issues “the four major homosexual fires” in Orange County.
Each in varying degrees is likely to spark continued debate through the coming fall between fervent anti-gay activists, such as Sheldon and Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), and those gay-rights activists who maintain that these leaders are out of step with most county residents.
And each, say leaders on both sides of the issue, comes at a time of intensified debate that could help forge the political landscape on the issue for years to come.
It was the supervisors’ rejection of the AIDS anti-discrimination plan, some in the homosexual community say, that exposed the weakness of the gay movement and has geared leaders up for an even stronger fight down the road.
“We got overconfident,” said Jeff Le Tourneau, co-founder of the Orange County Visibility League, a group of gay activists formed in 1987. “It was a failure on our part to realize that logic and reason aren’t enough. We failed to anticipate the arm-twisting and political intimidation of the religious right and respond to it. And that was the blow that awakened the sleeping giant.”
“Put Sheldon on Notice”
“We have to put the Rev. Sheldon and his people on notice that we are at war here in Orange County,” Le Tourneau said.
Le Tourneau’s group, which led the Santa Ana gay pride rally against Sheldon at City Hall earlier this month, advances a “militant” strategy that includes “die-in” protests to symbolize victims of AIDS, boisterous pickets and economic boycotts of those seen as hostile to the homosexual community.
Not all in the homosexual community adhere to this aggressive posture, preferring instead to work within the confines of the established political system to gain power and influence.
Some see such differences in strategy as a demonstration of the progress of the gay political movement in the last decade.
It was the battle over a 1978 ballot initiative by then-state Sen. John Briggs of Fullerton, which would have allowed the firing of homosexual teachers, that first forced gay activists to band together politically. But while that period helped establish political bases in such urban centers as Los Angeles and San Francisco, the flurry of activity proved only a product of the moment in Orange County.
It was not until the early to middle 1980s that Orange County’s homosexual community, under the immediate threat of the spread of AIDS, began developing an entrenched political network that is now “blossoming” in the form of more than two dozen local groups serving such diverse constituencies as homosexual outdoors enthusiasts, engineers, Jews and Asians, said civil rights attorney and gay activist John Duran.
Georgia Garrett-Norris, a local attorney termed by some “the Godmother of the gay community,” said that for too long homosexuals “were running scared, afraid to disagree even among ourselves. But now we’re big enough and strong enough and diverse enough that we can afford to have the differences of opinion that come with any political movement.”
Still, there is a cohesion to the movement. On Saturday, Le Tourneau of the Visibility League was among a diverse group of gay activists that included Republicans and more establishment-oriented gays as they plotted strategy for countering the supervisors’ AIDS vote.
Bonded by the common goal of advancing a gay political presence, movement leaders say that while they don’t have the fund-raising ability of the traditionally conservative groups, they are growing stronger financially. Duran cited one instance when he received $10,000 in donations for the Gay Pride Festival battle in the first week after the City Hall rally.
Gay rights organizations also claim to be growing in numbers. There are an estimated 700 gay “activists” in the county, but organizers say the potential for future growth is enormous. Although the number of homosexuals in Orange County is not known, gay community leaders estimate there are probably several hundred thousand. Sheldon and other anti-gay forces say the figure is much lower.
Yet as Sheldon acknowledged, the gay movement in Orange County “is increasingly powerful, and it’s growing. But that doesn’t bother me, because I know that morality and the forces of nature are on our side.”
Homosexual-rights opponents assert that the very integrity of the local community is at stake.
In a recent letter on the Gay Pride Festival issue, Dannemeyer, who last week drew fire in Washington for entering graphic descriptions of homosexual sex acts into the Congressional Record, urged Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young to “take a stand and affirm the heterosexual ethic as the foundation of our society. . . .
“Defeat” for Families
“Please do not allow the homosexual community to bully you into advocating their perverse life style. By doing so, you would be conceding defeat, not just your defeat, but one for the families of Santa Ana,” Dannemeyer wrote.
Expanding on that theme, Dannemeyer and supporters argue that gay political leaders around the county are not merely seeking equal protection under the law. Rather, such critics insist that homosexuals are seeking to legitimize and gain special protection for a “behavioral problem” that is largely of their own choosing.
“The person who is handicapped or black or a minority, they’re always going to be that way,” said Brett Barbre, a special assistant to Dannemeyer who has dealt extensively with local gay issues. “But the homosexual, that’s a chosen life style, and society shouldn’t have to pay the price for that by affording him special protections because of it.”
These are themes voiced many times in the current debates around the county over gay-related issues, and gay activists say they have heard them all too clearly before.
The problem, said Laguna Beach Mayor Robert F. Gentry, the county’s only openly gay elected official, is that conservative leaders such as Dannemeyer and Sheldon are “out of step with the people of Orange County” as reflected by public opinion yardsticks.
Two Poll Differ
In the 1986 annual survey conducted by a UC Irvine pollster, 67% of county residents said that “homosexual relations between consenting adults in the privacy of their home” should be legal, while 27% said they should be illegal. Nationwide, a Los Angeles Times Poll that same year found that 53% said such relations should be legal, while 35% said they should be illegal.
“The old stereotype of traditional, intransigent Orange County doesn’t hold up on the gay-rights issue,” Gentry said. “We may not have won yet, but the very fact that these issues are being discussed so heatedly and so frequently now is a huge step.
“Twenty-five, even 10 years ago, these were not polite issues to discuss at the town hall, or the polling place or the local church,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago, I thought I was the only homosexual in the world.”