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O.C. Fair’s LGBTQ pride flags cause a flap among some who consider them ‘non-inclusive’

Flags fly outside the O.C. Fair & Event Center administration building in Costa Mesa on Thursday.
OC Fair & Event Center officials approved flying the LGBTQ flag year-round in 2019 as a sign of inclusiveness. Now, some are calling for their removal, claiming they represent special interests.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

When Orange County fairgrounds officials decided in 2019 to fly rainbow flags in various locations on the 130-acre Costa Mesa complex and leave them up year-round, the act was intended to be a sign that all are welcome.

In a May 23 meeting of the Orange County Fair & Event Center Board, then-director Andreas Meyer proposed raising the six-striped banner, a symbol of pride in the LGBTQ community, as a statement of inclusion.

“I wanted to bring this proposed resolution to the board … to make a very visual expression to all members of the community that they are welcome on this property,” Andreas told the panel.

“When you see a rainbow flag flying, the sense of safety that that gives you and the sense of welcomeness that gives you, for a community that can otherwise be invisible, is very, very important,” he continued.

Flags fly over the O.C. Fair & Event Center administration building in Costa Mesa.
Some claim Orange County fairgrounds officials are being non-inclusive by flying the LGBTQ pride flag without extending the same offer to other groups.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Board members approved the plan 6-1, with two members absent, and adopted a resolution recognizing the history and contributions of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

Not everyone agreed with the move, however. Three days after the colorful standards were hoisted outside the fair’s administration building, the main entrance gate and the Pacific Amphitheatre, one was stolen and had to be replaced.

Now, more than a year later, a group of citizens is making repeated requests for the flags to be removed, claiming they represent a special interest and are non-inclusive to others who use the O.C. fairgrounds.

A handful of constituents spoke Thursday in a regular meeting of the OC Fair & Event Center Board, though the item was not on the meeting’s agenda.

“This board decided to fly this one particular special interest flag to make people this flag represents feel included and welcome. However, there are also other groups that do not feel included or welcome,” Costa Mesa resident Cindy Massaro said. “If only one single special interest group’s flag is flown, other groups will continue to feel disenfranchised if their flags are not also recognized.”

Massaro — who first came to the board with the opinion in July, asking for a Christian flag to be flown — suggested the board consider opening OC Fair flagpoles to other banners or removing the LGBTQ flags.

The LGBTQ Center OC transferred nearly all programming to virtual platforms once the pandemic hit. Now, the center is taking people in for appointment-based STI testing starting June 26.

Costa Mesan Kellie Avakian also began petitioning the board in July. She asked Thursday whether the panel might consider raising flags to other groups associated with the site, including 4-H, Future Farmers of America and the U.S. Equestrian Federation.

“We need to be having all flags that represent the fairgrounds on the flagpole, not just LGBTQ, which doesn’t represent Orange County as a whole,” she said.

The OC Fair, LGBTQ, U.S. and California flags fly outside of the OC Fair & Event Center administration building.
The OC Fair, LGBTQ, U.S. and California flags fly outside of the OC Fair & Event Center administration building in Costa Mesa on Thursday.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Board members, prohibited by the Brown Act from responding to public comments made on non-agendized topics, have remained mum on the subject.

But during the May 2019 meeting when the LGBTQ flags approved, Director Barbara Bagneris, who cast the lone dissenting vote, explained her reasoning.

“I have flags that I’m passionate about, too, that I’d like to see flown here. [But] I don’t think there’s enough poles for all the flags that could be flown,” Bagneris said, adding such precedent could open the floodgates to more requests. “We are going down a slippery slope if we do that.”

Starting a new restaurant is challenging under normal circumstances, especially with Orange County’s steep rent and depth of competition. But the addition of a pandemic has narrowed the odds of success even further.

Meyer then maintained the LGBTQ pride flag is an expression of inclusivity to all.

Costa Mesa resident Aaron McCall — member of the nonpartisan civic engagement organization Indivisible OC 48, representing constituents in California’s 48th Congressional District — said Friday he agreed.

“I thought it was really wonderful and a great testament to the fairgrounds, where people in charge feel they want to build a community that is inclusive in Orange County,” he said. “This is saying queer folks are part of our community and we love them and they’re welcome.”

McCall, who is gay, was part of the civic effort to have a pride flag flown over Costa Mesa on May 22, 2019 through that June in recognition of former San Francisco supervisor and gay activist Harvey Milk, who was fatally shot in 1978. He said the flag is a symbol that a space is safe for all.

“It’s about openness and unity,” McCall added. “It’s about loving yourself and loving others.”

OC Fair & Event Center Michele Richards said by email Friday the issue has generated opinions on all sides and it would be up to the board to determine whether it wished to reverse its 2019 decision.

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