When asked to assess the progress of OC LGBT rights over the past 20 years, I think back to the eve of the first Orange County Cultural Pride (OCCP) parade in 1989. Two years earlier, hundreds of county leaders traveled to the March On Washington, at which hundreds of thousands of LGBT activists marched, heard speeches and networked like never before.
We returned to OC with a new sense of empowerment as a national movement. The following year, tens of thousands of California activists rallied at the March On Sacramento, further empowering those of us returning to the hostile climate of homophobic and AIDS-phobic bigotry. By 1989, our community was ready to show the world that even in the heart of right-wing intolerance, we were out and proud, and we were never going back.
The battles fought to obtain the rights to march and celebrate on that September weekend long ago had been bitter and ugly. Many of us had endured days of public hearings at Santa Ana City Hall, led by Lou Sheldon and his rabidly homophobic Traditional Values Coalition. Overflow crowds listened to the religious extremists as they quoted hateful Bible verses. Young children paraded around the hearing room carrying huge photos of gay men with AIDS in their last days of life, as if they were badges of honor. Tempers flared, as OCCP attorney John Duran had to be led by police from the building to protect him from religious zealots talking in tongues while trying to exorcise demons from his body and soul. We prevailed, the permits were issued, and the parade and festival were a huge success.
By 1990, AIDS was taking a huge toll on our community. Every week, friends and fellow activists were simply gone, and with them the leadership skills and financial resources they had provided. As elected and religious homophobes continued their relentless attacks, we fought the good fight with political organizations such as ECCO, the Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club, Log Cabin Republican Club, the Orange County Visibility League, and ACT UP OC, as well as service organizations such as AIDS Services Foundation, Shanti, the Center, AIDS Response Program, AIDS Walk and many others.
We fought to stop homophobic propositions 69 and 102, for state and local protections for people with AIDS, for housing and job protections, for health-education programs in schools, and for an end to open warfare on our community. As the AIDS cocktail arrived in 1995, we educated OC public officials along with labor, feminist and other progressive leaders, and slowly but surely, we put our face on the political map. But such progress was not without its consequences. It was soon apparent an entire LGBT generation believing there was no longer a need to fight had simply fallen by the political wayside.
By 2000, significant progress had been made. State and (to a lesser extent) federal protections in areas of housing, education, insurance and employment had been passed. Most labor contracts expressly prohibited workplace discrimination in union shops, and schools provided HIV-health information. Gay/Straight Alliances began to flourish, even in the most conservative school districts. Then, in 2008, along came Proposition 8. Lacking a well-organized, diverse, grassroots community, we relied on fund-raising and mass-media buys, a political strategy that proved fatal. However, from that devastating loss came a resurgence of political power unlike any other in modern political history. Within one year, more than 10,000 new California LGBT organizations sprang to life, often led by young people of color with incredible computer and social-media skills.
Much has changed since that weekend in 1989. Orange County Equality Coalition has organized a progressive religious coalition; LGBT Dreamers are fighting for immigration reform; the Center now hosts political boot-camp programs for those as young as 11 years old; and the Asian-Pacific Islander community, through Viet Rainbow OC, is fighting for political inclusion and cultural awareness in Little Saigon. Job well-done!