Just as leaders of Orange County's burgeoning gay movement anticipated its finest hour, an outside group known for its militant, headline-grabbing stunts stole the spotlight Sunday. And the result was bittersweet for those seeking to win recognition--and broader rights--for county gays.
Santa Ana police, city officials and even some gay activists say that the Los Angeles chapter of Act Up, a national gay rights group, helped provoke a tense and at one point violent clash between gay supporters and fundamentalist Christians near the end of the Gay Pride Festival's parade at Centennial Park.
In a demonstration characteristic of the high-profile group, dozens of gays surrounded a group of fundamentalists and staged a "kiss-in." Police intervened, scuffles and arrests began and the image of Orange County's first Gay Pride Festival was stained.
Disagreement on Blame
Members of Act Up, which stands for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, denied any role in the the ruckus that followed their "kiss-in," in which many of the men embraced and kissed each other. But festival organizers said the group, which numbers 50 chapters nationally, was directly involved.
"They did what they thought was appropriate," said Janet Avery, president of the Orange County Cultural Pride, the group sponsoring the two-day Santa Ana festival. "They have listened to the opposition attack us. . . . They decided they needed to have some sort of say. I think they acted in good faith. It's just not the way I would have done it."
Judith Doyle, a leader of the highly successful Long Beach Gay Pride Festival, was less forgiving: "There are a good deal of folks who are upset at (Act Up)."
Founded to Promote Visibility
Controversy is nothing new for Act Up, founded in the mid-1980s in New York. Visibility is the group's credo, activists say. Among its members, 6,000 nationally, are art directors who design eye-catching posters, TV producers and lawyers who defend group members arrested for acts of civil disobedience. Its activities have ranged from tossing condoms at officials who oppose safe-sex education to staging "die-ins" at offices of companies making exorbitant-priced drugs.
A 30-second clip on the nightly news marks a successful operation.
Sunday in Santa Ana's Centennial Park proved to be another media coup. Against the backdrop of the first gay festival in a county well known for politicians who often target homosexuals and their movement, the struggle for gay rights played out in dramatic fashion. And not all local gay officials were pleased.
"This is not the kind of publicity we were seeking," said a somber Robert F. Gentry, the mayor of Laguna Beach and the county's only openly gay politician. "This may cloud what has been an otherwise-successful festival."
Rick Turner, a member of Act Up/Los Angeles, said officials have unfairly pinned blame on his group for Sunday's trouble. He acknowledged that many involved in the melee were wearing the group's distinctive black T-shirts bearing pink triangles--the symbol of Nazi oppression of homosexuals. But Turner said the group sold the T-shirts inside the festival, and those wearing them were not necessarily members.
"They point to our black T-shirts and say it was us, but actually it could be anyone," said Chris Roy, another Act Up member.
Roy boasted that group's growing reputation and influence in some way helped win approval for the county's gay festival: "It wouldn't be a festival today without Act Up."
Turner said police have misrepresented the intentions of gays before the clash. He said the fundamentalists were surrounded in a bid to "herd them back to the sidewalk because they were spitting and hitting us with their signs."
Suddenly, Turner said: "We were attacked . . . by the police with their clubs."
Turner blamed a gay group called "Radical Faeries," a militant gay group, for the violence.
Santa Ana City Councilwoman Patricia A. McGuigan disagreed. She said festival organizers at the end of the parade urged all gays to go inside the festival, but members of Act Up/LA lingered behind near the Edinger Avenue entrance to the park, where the violence erupted.
"They did that," said McGuigan, who was on the fringe of the park when the fracas started. "The way things were under control inside was an indication that the people who came to support the festival were not militant."
Times staff writer Jim Carlton contributed to this report.