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Photo by Daniel C. TsangOrange County's first annual gay and lesbian pride festival began in spectacular fashion 14 years ago at Santa Ana's Centennial Park. Angry Christian conservatives showed up carrying urine-filled balloons, taunted attendees with chants of "Go back to your closet," and hired an airplane to fly over the event carrying a banner reading, "Sodomites out of Santa Ana! No AIDS in OC!" While most gay festivals struggled for media attention, OC's was featured on nationwide television thanks to a fistfight that ended in riot police, six arrests and a tickled Reverend Lou Sheldon declaring, "We just want to show these people their sins and lead them down the right path."
Ah, the good old days.
But the August pride festival—which later moved to the picturesque UC Irvine campus and once drew 9,000 revelers—has been quietly canceled. The reason? Waning interest.
"There simply has been a lack of attendance to pay for the event," said Robb Helms, chief financial officer of the Orange County Cultural Pride (OCCP) committee. "Last year, we had just over 3,000, and it takes 5,000 paid attendees just to break even. So the numbers didn't add up. To be honest, there has not been sufficient interest in our community to warrant continuing the festival."
Ironically, OC's event is in limbo while gay pride festivals in Long Beach, West Hollywood, San Diego and Palm Springs are thriving. OCCP officials say they don't know why Orange County's estimated 380,000 gay and lesbian citizens can't support a pride celebration. Organizers of the Long Beach gay festival say their attendance topped 55,000 and is the third largest event in the nation. To help discover the reasons for Orange County's failure, OCCP has placed a five-page public survey on its website (www.ocgaypride.com), and in April, the group sought feedback during a community forum. Helms says the group has drawn no conclusions yet about what brought down OC Gay Pride.
"We're in the process of consolidating all of the information," said Helms, who is an original member of the pride festival's executive board from 1987. "People certainly have their opinions, but so far there has been no definitive explanation." OCCP will meet again on June 17 to discuss survey results and, more important, to consider whether "it's feasible to have some type of one-day festival or picnic or gathering at the beach in the future."
Several gay community leaders interviewed by the Weekly suggested that creating a successful local pride event requires relatively simple solutions, involving either timing or location or both. There are those who think that attendance at Orange County's mid-August festival has historically been hurt because it follows ones in nearby Long Beach (May), West Hollywood (June) and San Diego (July). Others think that holding the event at UCI's cozy if out-of-the-way Aldrich Park killed a major goal of pride events: public visibility. There have been suggestions to relocate to a Laguna Beach site such as the Sawdust Festival complex, but OCCP officials—who have explored that idea—say cost and parking issues will likely preclude that possibility.
"I don't think it should be in Laguna or Irvine. We should have the festival in Santa Ana," said Hanson. "It's geographically the center of our county. It would be very inclusive and out in the open—the way any good gay pride festival should be. The UCI space didn't work."
Still others claim the festival's problem goes deeper than what a quick face-lift can solve. One official said that "there is a mentality in Orange County that seems to want to shoot ourselves in the foot." For example, he said that one festival organizing group that he declined to identify—he did say, ironically, that it was not a religious organization—demanded what they saw as a necessary reform: no beer sales. Volunteers scratched their heads. In addition to keeping attendees happy, beer has helped float the cash-poor festival. A beer distributorship underwrote part of the event's costs in the past.
But the biggest rift might be generational. Said one annoyed, longtime gay festival volunteer, who asked not to be identified, "I really don't see that the young ones in Orange County care about keeping pride alive. I think they are more interested in money and convenience and career. They don't seem to appreciate that they are the ones who are ultimately responsible for keeping this event alive."
If some older gays blame youthful apathy for pride's apparent failure, younger gays say that the county's pride festivals have been boring and uninspiring.
"Unfortunately, the festivals were a huge problem for Orange County's gay youth," said Yori Hutson, a OCCP board member until she resigned in April to help launch the first Dyke March OC, to be held Aug. 17 in Costa Mesa. "The youth want more of a public face on the festival, but it was held in a basically enclosed space at a UCI park. It's fair to say the older, more comfortable guys never cared as much about being seen in public."
Others are more blunt. "Look at Long Beach. Their pride party is fun, fun, fun! Ours has been horrible," said one well-known community activist. "Part of the problem is that Orange County needs to put on a festival that helps gay people feel good about themselves, and improving the venue is just one part of it. Let's face it: except for Laguna Beach, there is a strong sense throughout Orange County that openly gay people aren't to be seen. It's a pity, but people have to go elsewhere."
Leaving OC for a good and productive time isn't always necessary, however. During Memorial Day weekend, for example, Woody's at the Beach restaurant and the Boom Boom Room organized with Peter Blake Gallery and 31 other local and national businesses to sponsor a "Hunks in Trunks" party that delighted partygoers and raised more than $28,000 for Laguna Beach Shanti AIDS Resource Center.
Nevertheless, OCCP's Helms—who has been in consultation with LA's Christopher Street West festival managers as well as Long Beach Pride officials—says he is not giving up on a future successful countywide festival.
"Maybe we have come to a time when gay people don't believe they need to fight for anything anymore," he said. "I hope that is not true. I think we have to come up with a new agenda, a new production."