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Rainbow flag controversy raised at OC Fair & Event Center meeting, though point may be moot

The OC Fair, rainbow, U.S. and California flags
The OC Fair, rainbow, U.S. and California flags fly outside of the OC Fair & Event Center administration building in Costa Mesa on Nov. 19.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

An Orange County Fair & Event Center committee established to address community relations issues, including diversity, became ground zero Wednesday for a debate on flying the rainbow flag, symbolizing LGBTQ pride, at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds — a controversy officials insist is a non-issue.

“The pride flag is flying at the O.C. fairgrounds, so nothing has changed,” clarified OC Fair & Event Center Board Member Nick Kovacevich, who serves on the newly formed Community Affairs Committee. “At this meeting we’re not going to be doing any sort of voting on the pride flag.”

Multiple rainbow banners, a symbol of welcome for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals, have flown over the 130-acre complex since June 2019. But recently, a small group of residents has been requesting their removal, claiming they are non-inclusive and cater to special interests.

Although the OCFEC’s board of directors has given no indication it will take down the flags, controversy has been brewing between those for and against the standards.

The debate reared its head again at Wednesday’s virtual meeting, during which organizers had hoped to collect feedback on how the O.C. fairgrounds might foster even better relations with the public, including in matters related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

The Irvine City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to overturn a decades-old city initiative that denied lesbians and gays anti-discrimination protection based on their sexual orientation.

More than two dozen public speakers shared comments and stories about intolerance and discrimination in Orange County, where hate crimes rose by 24% in 2019, according to the nonprofit O.C. Human Relations Commission.

“It’s important that the fairgrounds acknowledge and create a welcoming space for all its community members, including those who are LGBTQ,” said Stephanie Camacho Van-Dyke, a director for the LGBTQ Center Orange County. “Allowing the pride flag to be continuously flown sends a clear message, one that is of inclusion and representation.”

Speaker Pamela Smith agreed the pride flag is an important symbol of acceptance.

“[The OC Fair] is a diverse fair, and it has diverse participants,” Smith said. “And if we want to keep that door open, we have to have symbols and we have to have activities available that make people feel welcome.”

Others spoke out against the LGBTQ flags, suggesting other local groups be allowed to fly banners representing a variety of interests, from youth sports to equestrianism.

Costa Mesa resident Kellie Avakian began petitioning the board in July to either remove the pride flag or add others. She suggested Wednesday the fairgrounds also fly standards for equestrian groups, youth sports and organizations like 4-H.

“Having one flag is not really fair,” she said. “Since that one’s flying, I feel like you should be giving thought to the other flags as well.”

Todd Martin, of Costa Mesa, agreed.

“I don’t see the flags up there are being diverse,” Martin said. “I don’t see any allowance for any other flags — there are other groups that would like to be represented up there as well.”

John Stephens, who lost a reelection bid in November, returns to public service in a new role, while Costa Mesa residents hard hit by the pandemic are given a temporary reprieve from street-sweeping violations.

Kovacevich attempted to rein in the conversation and discuss more broadly how the OC Fair & Event Center might foster inclusivity through its programs and events.

Heeding the request, other speakers suggested having more events to showcase diverse cultures, their customs and cuisines and creating safe spaces at the OC Fair and fairgrounds for LGBTQ youth. Former Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Wendy Leece suggested creating areas where volunteers might read Bible passages to children.

Orange resident and fair activist Reggie Mundekis criticized OC Fair organizers for contracting with vendors from other states instead of showcasing more local businesses and residents.

“When those businesses from outside Orange County get that sales money, they take that money and those profits and they leave,” she said. “We need to become more Orange County-focused.”

Kovacevich said he would present some suggestions and the results of a community survey sent to poll residents on their thoughts at a Jan. 28 board meeting. OC Fair & Event Center Executive Director Michele Richards thanked attendees for participating.

“The Community Affairs Committee is going to have an ongoing interest in reflecting at the OC Fair and our other programs what is important to the community at large,” she said. “Everyone’s voice is important to us.”

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