By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
“These are not the glory days,” Gorman says. “We’re taking the hard lessons we learned in 2008 and—in a very meaningful, deliberate manner—putting together the infrastructure for a campaign that can win Orange County and California. And it’s not glamorous.”
Courage Campaign isn’t the only statewide group that has stepped up its presence in OC in the wake of Prop. 8. Equality California (EQCA) has hired Aversa, 26, and Shad, 24, as full-time field managers. It’s these statewide groups that have headed up the political fieldwork in the past year. OCEC, though, often provides the volunteers for knocking on doors; organizing phone banks; and recruiting at piers, parks and parties. Instead of focusing on electoral politics, the coalition has emphasized communications, advocacy and community-building.
And that’s exactly what they should be doing, says Cal State Fullerton political science professor Stephen Stambough, who studies elections, campaigns and “culture wars.” The No. 1 challenge for the gay-rights movement, he says, is infrastructure. “A lot of the groups that were against [gay marriage] were organized through churches, which, when the proposition campaign is over with, will still go back to their normal duties,” he says. “So people weren’t just joining to be in favor of Proposition 8. Unless the people who are in favor of gay marriage can counter with something that exists independently of a campaign structure, they’re at a disadvantage.”
More than a hundred people can show up at monthly OCEC meetings. Sometimes, there’s a speaker—such as Tustin-raised Dan Choi, the Army lieutenant who earlier this year was kicked out of the military for being gay—and sometimes there’s an event to plan. The group’s e-mail list is nearly a thousand strong; its social-networking website (ocequality.ning.com) has more than 440 members.
In May, OCEC organized a 500-person rally and march in response to the California Supreme Court’s upholding of Prop. 8. Altstaetter, who coordinated the event with police, says the event was not only meant to make a statement, but also to provide a “safe space” for anyone feeling “suicidal, homicidal, whatever” after the court’s decision. August saw OCEC revive the county’s gay-pride festival, which had been put on hiatus in 2002 because of dwindling attendance. The inaugural festival in 1989 in Santa Ana made headlines thanks to the bags of urine lobbed at attendants by outsiders wielding banners reading, “Sodomites out of Santa Ana! No AIDS in OC!” The 2009 event only made headlines for being a peaceful, family-friendly picnic.
The past year has also seen OCEC develop into an advocacy group, combating discrimination, insensitivity and hate speech. Its members showed up to a meeting of the Orange County Board of Education meeting after president Alexandria Coronado made contemptuous remarks about “that lifestyle.” In another instance, a Santa Ana resident who posted a rainbow flag outside his house came to OCEC when he got this anonymous voice-mail message: “If you don’t take down that flag, we’re going to wrap you in it and burn your house down.” Altstaetter says the police only investigated after being pressured by OCEC and other organizations.
OCEC’s most public act of outreach came amid controversy at Corona del Mar High School. In February, a student sent an e-mail to Altstaetter and a number of news organizations detailing how drama teacher Ron Martin alleged that the school’s administration was canceling a planned performance of Rent merely because it portrayed gay people. Altstaetter forwarded the e-mail to OCEC’s board of directors, the dispute was written up in The New York Times, and the administration let the show go on.
Karyl Ketchum, mother of Hail Ketchum, one of the play’s lead actresses, says OCEC played an integral role in publicizing Rent’s cancellation and providing moral support to the cast. “I don’t know that that show would have gone on without OCEC,” Ketchum says. “I really don’t.”
The production brought the attention of the Westboro (Kansas) Baptist Church, whose congregants travel around the county waving signs that are mostly variations on “GOD HATES FAGS” and “JEWS KILLED JESUS.” Pastor Fred Phelps announced his intention to picket the school on the play’s opening night. OCEC organized a counterprotest; for each of the three Westboro Baptists out front, there were roughly 100 Rent supporters shouting slogans from the other side of the street.
But some at Corona del Mar High say the Rent flap only hinted at the levels of latent homophobia and misogyny at the school. In March, the Ketchum-Wiggins family and OCEC, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against school administrators and the Newport-Mesa School District. Three seniors had posted a video on Facebook in which they called other students “faggots” and talked about raping and murdering Hail Ketchum-Wiggins. The Ketchum-Wiggins family and OCEC said the administration’s lack of action on the matter fostered an environment hostile to females and LGBT students. Within six months, the school settled the lawsuit and agreed to put teachers, students and administrators through harassment training.
OCEC has also had success in reaching out to religious institutions. On Nov. 2, OCEC organized a church service, titled “Keeping the Faith for Equality,” at the Church of the Foothills in Santa Ana. More than a dozen speakers preached in succession—Episcopalians and Congregationalists, Unitarians and Jews, pagans and atheists—about their constituencies’ commitment to gay rights. Many talked about the upcoming vote in Maine, saying they prayed for equality to prevail and that they knew that people in Orange County were working to see that it would.