Hansen: Gay Laguna fades away

It's been said that Laguna Beach was born gay, started by colorful artists and infused with an eclectic happiness that can only come from open-minded people.

Then why has it become so straight?

What happened to the energy, the progressiveness and self-effacing creativity?

"It's not the same," said Fred Karger, 62, a longtime activist and now the first openly gay Republican candidate for U.S. president. "There are still a lot of gay people but many have left to Palm Springs or San Diego or Long Beach or Los Angeles. And it's not the same without that kind of cool gathering spot."

Karger was referring to the Boom Boom Room. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the closing of the iconic gay bar, which shut its doors on Labor Day in 2007. Karger, and many others, tried unsuccessfully to keep it open.

"I am absolutely convinced — and I've tried to talk to that economic development commission when they were exploring ways to bring revenue in — and I said you should help get a second gay bar in this town," Karger said. "And you'll see the gay community come back, and you'll see a lot of these stores coming back to life."

On the campaign trail in Puerto Rico last week, Karger pointed out a large gay cruise that was about to leave the port — and the benefits it brings.

"I'm actually in Puerto Rico right now campaigning for president, but there's a gay cruise leaving from here with 2,300 gay men on it from all over the place. There's a lot of money spent on travel, particularly in the gay community. And they used to come to Laguna."

Former Laguna Mayor Bob Gentry — the first gay mayor in the country — spent 12 years on the City Council in the 1980s and '90s. He now splits his time between Hawaii and Rancho Mirage, which has a thriving gay community. Gentry said its success rests largely on economics and welcoming city policies.

He laments the long-suffering demise of Laguna's gay culture.

"To look at this in a cultural, demographic, political kind of way — all of that — the big picture to me goes back to the AIDS crisis in the '80s," he said. "And what started there was a feeling in the city of some shame and denial and some, 'we've-got-to-change-this culture because it's doing damage to the city.'"

Gentry, 73, said the losses were felt deeply because they decimated an active core of volunteers.

"We lost dozens and dozens of prominent, involved, community-oriented, dedicated Lagunans to HIV and AIDS," he said. "And that was the beginning of the change of Laguna being the gay gem on the California coast, sitting, waiting for multimillions of dollars of visitor money coming into the city."

The only gay bar remaining in Laguna now is Club Bounce (formerly Main Street), the hard-to-find underground club across the street from the old Boom. On Friday and Saturday nights, it is also the only club in Laguna that plays high-octane dance music, which means it draws both gay and straight alike.

"Club Bounce, it's still predominantly gay but a great mix of people, which is what the Boom was; it's just very diverse — everyone having a good time," Karger said. "I'm optimistic someone will open another gay bar. The Boom was so expensive for that property — oceanfront. You have to sell a lot of martinis to get your money back."

If, then, there are economic pressures to keep a club open, and an unforgiving history in Laguna, what gives the local gay scene any hope? What happens to young gay men and women who want to go out?

"I think the Internet and technology has taken the place of the traditional gay bar," said Gentry. "People are meeting people technologically — Facebook, Twitter, the Internet. And it's a lot cheaper than going out and drinking.

"And we all know that young men and women are coming out much earlier than my generation and generations after me. And part of it is the social-political change."

Karger agrees that gay Laguna is not dead, but it's different and not as high-profile.

"The holiday weekends are busy: Memorial Weekend, Fourth of July, Labor Day — jam-packed; the gay beaches, wall to wall," he said. "It's more house parties and less bars. It was always kind of a combination, but it's definitely been impacted, particularly younger people who like to go out."

For so long Laguna Beach was branded as a "gay city," and if that's the case, what happens when that brand erodes? Do gays take it personally? For some, yes, definitely.

"The gay visitor industry sees this better than you and I do," said Gentry. "And I hear it from them all the time — that it's such a shame Laguna is not Laguna anymore. And I hear it everyday here in Honolulu because I meet people from all over the world who know Laguna and were going to stop there on their way here but decided nope, we're going to stop in Palm Springs because there's nothing in Laguna for us."

If Karger has his way, Laguna will become the old Laguna again, starting with resurrecting the Boom.

"That's my heart. I never give up on that. If I don't become president, I will continue to work at it. If I do become president, I will continue to work at it. Get the federal government to throw some money in. We'll buy the building."

Perhaps it will take presidential involvement. Or an act of Congress.

Or at least an admission that birth rights are not enough. Laguna's culture, for better or worse, is being defined by new things now.

Things that don't dance.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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