Irvine's Orangetree neighborhood is a Don Bren wet dream: beige-ish, single-family homes set on maze-like streets kept spic-and-span by an HOA, with the biggest controversy usually being how much more tranquil the sleepy place can get. At least, that was until Dr. Mary Pham added color by hanging an LGBT Pride Flag prominently above her two-story house in early June. And that's all that was needed to turn life in the area into yet another Blue Velvet-esque tale of suburbia's seedy underside, unmasked.
"Within a month of hanging [the flag], someone sent an email to the homeowners' association complaining about a 'fag flag,'" Pham says. "They said that it was 'an eyesore,' but it's a rainbow. It's beautiful."
The flag has made Pham a target, drawing angry emails and threatening notes, which are taped to her door and left under the windshield wipers of her housemate's car. But rather than back down, the attention has only strengthened Pham's resolve.
"I'm angry that these adults feel this way," she says. "Okay, they hate me; that's fine. But to hate an entire group? That's wrong. The way these people are thinking, they're in the Stone Age."
Pham's not a complete stranger to the spotlight. A Vietnamese American chiropractic doctor who came to the United States following the fall of Saigon, Pham has three (mostly) adult children and used to host a daytime talk-radio program on KUCI-FM 88.9 that attempted to shatter stereotypes about living behind the Orange Curtain. In a June 2012 edition of her show, Pham said that, though she often does not speak highly of Irvine, it was ultimately "a pretty good place to live."
She first flew the flag following a ceremony with friends in June. "It took me a long time to find my flag to hang, so when I did, [my friend] Ramon and I decided that we should do a fun ceremonial event," she says. "Most of my friends here in Orange County rent rooms, so they do not have the luxury of hanging anything. . . . We all decided that [my flag] was pride for all of us—that's why it was a big event. We invited all of our friends of all colors to come to share."
The flag prominently hung from one of the tallest structures in Orangetree. It immediately drew attention, with initial complaints first directed to the neighborhood's property-management company, PowerStone Property Management.
"On a separate matter, have HOA members contacted PowerStone re: Kurt's [Killian, Pham's housemate] 'Fag Flag?'" reads a June 4 email obtained by the Weekly sent by a resident. "Is the GAY PRIDE [capitalized and in rainbow colors] display protected by free speech rights? The Orangetree Patio Homes neighbors are shaking their heads in disgust. Sexuality is private, and Kurt's display is very, very public. It's even visible from the tennis courts."
The reply from community manager Amanda McGinley reads, "We have not had any calls yet about the flag on the home. . . . But I did see it on the property inspection and contacted legal counsel to see if the HOA can do anything about it. Civil Code does provide protection for homeowners to put up flags, banners and noncommercial signs, and the Association can do nothing to prohibit it. I have a feeling that this will not last long, but I could be wrong."
McGinley was wrong. Pham continued to fly the flag, drawing more complaints and the ire of more Irvinites. Dave Adams, the board president of Orangetree's HOA, added a discussion about the hanging of flags to the July meeting agenda, according to Killian.
"[The residents] . . . have had their 'gay pride' flag up for six to eight weeks," reads another resident's email, dated July 11. "The flag has two wedding rings interlocked and many rainbow-colored stripes. It is an eyesore.
"In my opinion, it is okay to feel strongely [sic] about a cause," the email continues. "But to leave their 'political statement' up for this long is ridiculous, and I am offended. Most people do not choose the gay lifestyle, and personally, it irritates me to have to be reminded every day of two men having sex with each other. It's not a fun thing to look at as I come and go every day. If someone left their sign up regarding an election for more than a week or two, it would get very old and be an eyesore."
However, during the meeting, the item was ignored. In Irvine, municipal code offers protections for the display of flags and banners. "No person shall interfere with the exercise of free speech rights by persons within areas open to the general public in shopping centers, apartment complexes, and other private or public property open to the general public," reads the relevant law.
Pham contacted the Center OC about the emails, and the Center relayed the information to the Irvine Police Department, who sent Lieutenant Bill Whalen to take a report, dated Nov. 17.
"Lieutenant Whalen contacted a homeowner because the Department received some secondhand information that there had been a possible hate crime," said department spokesperson Lieutenant Julia Engen. "After speaking with the homeowner, he learned that the information we received was not accurate and the incident was not in fact a crime. No threats were directed at the homeowner. Lieutenant Whalen documented the facts as relayed to him by the homeowner in an incident report."
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Immediately after Whalen's visit, however, the complaints became much more direct. Someone taped a press release by Westboro Baptist Church to the house's door that read, in part, "We've turned America over to the fags; [soldiers are] coming home in body bags." At approximately the same time, someone also placed a note that says, "God Hates Flags"—a play on Westboro's infamous "God Hates Fags" slogan—on Killian's car.
Not all feedback about the flag has been negative, however. When Pham briefly took the flag down in July to fix its mount, someone left another anonymous note at the house, this time urging Pham to put the flag back up. One side shows a picture of the flag drawn in colored pencil; the other contains the lyrics of Seattle hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Same Love," a pro-LGBT anthem that garnered wide radio play. The note concludes, "Please put your flag back up."
Today, the Pride Flag flies brighter and more securely than before. After reinforcing the mount, Pham put up a new flag because the former one had begun to fade. She hopes the attention she's getting can be used as a teaching moment. "We're going to be meeting with some people and attempting to start up a coalition," she says. "We're going to approach the city and try to raise awareness, to try to get a talk going.
"Everywhere else, people are aware of everything," Pham continues. "Now it's time to raise awareness here."