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Laguna Beach Debates Gay Vote’s True Power : Politics: Openly gay Mayor Gentry says ‘there’s no question’ of strength. But others say straight liberals help cause of tolerance more than city’s still-closeted homosexuals.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite Laguna Beach’s close identity with its large gay population, observers here still debate how much power gay voters really wield.

The city, the only one in Orange County to pass laws protecting the rights of homosexuals, has one of the nation’s highest per capita incidence of AIDS. Yet in the midst of such need, a lack of financial support threatened recently to slam shut the doors at Laguna Shanti, one of the county’s largest AIDS service providers and the only such facility in Laguna Beach.

Mayor Robert F. Gentry, who went public with the fact that he is gay one year after being elected to the City Council in 1982, said the city’s homosexual population is a force with which any Laguna Beach candidate must reckon. Whatever their persuasion, those running for elected office commonly call him for tips on how to appeal to gay voters, he said.

“It’s more than just being tolerant and saying, ‘Whatever your lifestyle is doesn’t matter to me'--that doesn’t cut it,” he said. “There’s no question about it: There is strength and political power here. We are everywhere in this town.”

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Others, however, say it is liberal heterosexuals who have advanced gay rights in Laguna Beach, including anti-discrimination laws passed in 1983 and 1986.

“The reasons that gay and AIDS issues have gotten in place in Laguna Beach is because the straight politicians and voters in Laguna Beach are supportive of those things,” said AIDS Response director Tim Miller, who worked for the city of Laguna Beach for six years. “To me, that has always been the irony of Laguna Beach. The straight people are wonderful and supportive and proud to have gay people there and the (gay) people basically cower in the closet and don’t do that much with the community at large.”

In fact, a recently approved domestic partnership ordinance, which allows homosexuals and unmarried heterosexuals some of the same rights as married couples, was fashioned and lobbied for by Village Laguna, a political action committee not known to be weighted with gays.

“What struck me was the straight people I knew in Laguna Beach were much more radical in their approach toward the gay and lesbian community in terms of wanting non-discrimination,” said Dan Wooldridge, founder of the Election Committee of the County of Orange. “The people in the civic groups and neighborhood associations . . . all of them are overwhelmingly supportive of the gay and lesbian community.”

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While some observers say Laguna’s gay population draws attention because it is vocal, Niles Merton, publisher of the Advocate, a national gay news magazine and former director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Orange County, said the “extremely wealthy, deeply closeted gay men who live in the hills of Laguna Beach” are mostly politically uninvolved.

“They wouldn’t give a dime to a gay organization, of course, because they’re so closeted,” he said.

It would be hard, however, to ignore the influence of the popular and outspoken Gentry, now serving his third term as mayor. In addition, the AIDS epidemic, which has struck hard here, has in some ways galvanized the community. Laguna Beach is the only city in Orange County with an HIV advisory committee.

While the effects of the AIDS epidemic was being felt in Laguna Beach in the early 1980s, it was Gentry who laid the subject heavily on the table in January, 1989, when he announced from the mayor’s seat that his own lover had died of the disease the night before.

But some say Gentry’s openness makes many in the city’s gay community squirm.

“There’s a strong contingent of gay people in Laguna Beach who think Bob Gentry should just go back in the closet and keep his mouth shut,” said Dennis Amick, the mayor’s partner for the past two years. “It threatens them to think that anybody would be that visible because they’re not ready to be that visible.”

Wooldridge said he remembers the response when Gentry publicly announced his homosexuality.

“At that point, I was at this party that involved a lot of gay men who don’t come out and a lot of the comments were, ‘How dare he do this? You can’t go around shoving this down people’s throat.’ (There was) a lot of anger at Bob from men who were gay and were totally angry at him making a statement like that.”

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Some say entirely too much emphasis is put on Laguna Beach as the center of gay activity in Orange County.

“The gay community there is not Laguna Beach,” Merton said. “It is Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa, north Santa Ana. There’s a big gay community in Garden Grove, huge.”

Gentry said he believes that gays have more political clout in other cities than most people realize.

“This is an invisible group of people,” he said.


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