Local LGBTQ activists react after flag vote in Huntington Beach

Nico Osborne, center, with his six siblings and moms Sal and Lena Osborne, right, holds up a sign during council meeting.
Nico Osborne, center, with his six siblings and moms Sal and Lena Osborne, right, holds up a sign during the Huntington Beach City Council meeting on Tuesday night.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Ashley Williamson has felt the temperature rising in Huntington Beach for a while now.

To Williamson, an activist who lives in Surf City, Tuesday night’s 4-3 vote by the City Council to essentially stop the LGBTQ Pride rainbow flag from flying on city property was indicative of that.

Williamson, who is bisexual and uses she/they pronouns, spoke at the meeting against the agenda item. She said she now feels more apprehension about raising her 11-year-old child, who recently identified as nonbinary, in Huntington Beach.

Some have derisively called her a “groomer,” she said, a slang term used to refer to a person who wants to exploit or abuse impressionable children.

“I’m pretty loud with my beliefs, and it wasn’t an issue for a long time,” she said. “Before the Trump and COVID era, we flew under the radar. There wasn’t that ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Now I feel like that’s been growing. I’m feeling more animosity from neighbors that disagree with me, specifically because of my beliefs, specifically because of my Black Lives Matter flag and my Pride flag [outside my home].

“It’s making things that are not complicated a lot more complicated than they need to be.”

Members of the Huntington Beach City Council listen to Alex Mohajer during a meeting on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Other local LGBTQ activists also expressed disappointment at the passage of that the agenda item, introduced by Councilman Pat Burns. To them, it erased the progress made two years ago when the council voted 6-0-1 to fly the rainbow flag at City Hall each June for Pride month. Even controversial former Councilman Tito Ortiz, who ran on a Donald Trump-inspired pledge to “Make Huntington Beach Safe Again,” voted in favor of that item.

The flag actually was raised on May 22, which is Harvey Milk Day, honoring the first openly gay person elected to California public office.

“I think we here as a city need to continue to voice that we are a welcoming, inclusive community that embraces all,” then-Mayor Kim Carr said at the time.

Aaron McCall, who is gay, is the vice chair of the Orange County Young Democrats. He said he spent time over the weekend encouraging people to speak up online, and in person at the meeting, against the agenda item. The large majority of both emails received and speakers at the meeting were indeed against the limitations.

“Those four members of the City Council are trying to give speech that LGBT people are not welcomed, they’re not celebrated and they’re not included,” said McCall, who lives in Costa Mesa. “That’s crazy, because Huntington Beach is the people’s beach, Orange County’s beach. That’s where we all go, that’s where we all celebrate our birthdays, celebrate the U.S. Open [of Surfing] and they’re trying for the Olympics. But their stance is saying that their bigotry and their hatred toward the community is more important than the rest of the visitors and residents of Huntington Beach.”

Juniper Osborne, left, holds a sign during the Huntington Beach City Council meeting on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Burns received support on his agenda item by his three fellow conservative council members elected alongside him in November, Mayor Tony Strickland, Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark and Casey McKeon. Voting against the measure were Dan Kalmick, Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton.

Burns said Wednesday that activists speaking against his proposal during Tuesday’s meeting were making the item about something it wasn’t. In his comments during the discussion, he mentioned he has a nephew and niece who are gay.

Burns, a longtime police officer for the Long Beach Police Department, said Wednesday he taught a class on cultural awareness in the police academy.

“We don’t fly Angel [baseball] flags,” he said. “In October, we don’t fly Breast Cancer Awareness flags. There’s a place for them. We didn’t ban any flags in the city ... Just not here in Huntington on the poles of the city.”

He added that he didn’t believe that it was city government’s job to single out groups.

“I think that’s divisive,” he said. “I think that’s actually demeaning to that group, that they need that lift up. I don’t think they need the lift up, I just think they need to assimilate and be who they are.”

McCall disagreed with that take, calling it a cynical argument.

“The reason why we have the Pride flag is to acknowledge there is a community of people we have systemically erased and pushed out of public life,” he said. “We’ve said they’re not valid for being who they are and loving who they love … and this has been done not only by society at large but by government. It’s the obligation of our governments, of our cities, to bring a sense of restorative justice.

“The flag is not just about LGBT people, it’s about their allies, about their friends. It’s about love.”

Braunwyn Windham-Burke, from the Real Housewives of Orange County, reacts to a speaker during public comments on Tuesday.
Braunwyn Windham-Burke, from the Real Housewives of Orange County, reacts to a speaker during public comments on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Larry Tenney, who is gay, first moved to downtown Huntington Beach in the early 2000s. An activist who is very active on Twitter, Tenney spent time after Tuesday night’s meeting tweeting to different accounts, including LA28 chairman Casey Wasserman, telling them to boycott Huntington Beach as a venue for the Olympics in 2028.

“For the last couple of years, Huntington Beach just keeps going backward and backward,” Tenney said. “It’s not what America is. It’s sometime in the past.”

Notably, even if Huntington Beach was selected, the Olympic flag now couldn’t fly on city property without an exemption.

Burns maintained that the agenda item was born out of a sense of unity.

“We’re one community,” he said. “I think we’re stronger and better as one than divided.”

Williamson wasn’t buying that, though, calling it double-speak.

“My base knows what I really mean, but I get to get away with it because I’ve got our patriotism to stand up for,” she said. “Or, [the Pride flag] is divisive because some people don’t agree with gay people. Which is, you know, like disagreeing with mountains. There’s still going to be mountains out there.”

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