The State of LGBT OC By an Anti-Discrimination Activist and the Executive Director of the Center OC

I'm always a little hesitant to argue optimistically about civil rights expanding in Orange County, but for the LGBT community, there are some good reasons to celebrate. Certainly, the collapse of DOMA and the announced constitutionality of marriage equality are reasons to wave our rainbow flags and have a parade—we do love a parade. But there's much more going on in Orange County than those rights advanced by the Supreme Court. Even though we don't realize it ourselves a lot of the time, there is a strong and vibrant, yet disparate, LGBT community in Orange County, a community that is finally starting to come out and come together.

Earlier this year, a group of new Vietnamese activists sprung into being after LGBT folk were denied entry into the Tet Festival Parade. The group managed to galvanize the entire community and bring significant national attention to the discrimination they encountered. Because of their efforts, many politicians boycotted the parade. One town over, the group Gay Friends, Families and Neighbors of Santa Ana have been fighting for national and local causes for several years—this is a grassroots group not to be trifled with. The Orange County Equality Coalition came into being around the time of the first Proposition 8 battle and has been fighting for LGBT and progressive causes ever since. Gay 4 Good has been taking on community-service projects for all types of charitable organizations in the county for the past three years. These gay boys have done everything from painting buildings and filling boxes at food pantries to covering up graffiti and building houses for Habitat for Humanity. If music is more your thing, Orange County's Men Alive has gained a national reputation as one of the nation's leading men's choruses. The only thing that has been missing from the mix is one central organization to bring these groups together into a strong community, and that has started to change.

The Center OC (formerly the Orange County Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center) has until recently worked on the periphery of the community. Most people are shocked to learn the Center is the second oldest in the nation and was founded in 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots. For years, it provided HIV services, mental-health counseling and youth programming, but it stopped short of engaging, organizing and advocating for the community.

Eighteen months ago, the Center's board launched a strategic initiative to reshape it as the hub of the LGBT community. Instead of ducking advocacy work and making strong political statements for fear of offending segments of the community, the Center would work with existing groups and reach out to new allies to launch an aggressive advocacy campaign. In the past 18 months, the Center has stepped into the marriage-equality movement, backed legislation protecting trans kids in schools, and started speaking out on hate crimes. Not only is it not looking to avoid contentious issues, but it is also seeking out issues that will advance LGBT civil rights and protections.

Youth programming at the Center has grown fivefold. YETA (Youth Empowered to Act) spread its wings in the Chick-Fil-A protest and ended up on CNN and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart; this summer, the Center is bringing together queer and straight youth in an activist boot camp, at which students learn how to organize and move their anti-bullying program, Color Me Equal, into OC schools. There is a new group for younger kids, ages 12 to 14, who are identifying as LGBT or questioning their identity, as well as a trans youth group.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the Center launched a senior program, with three support groups and plans for exercise and art classes. Members want to fight the rampant discrimination occurring against older LGBT folks as they retire and move into care facilities.

We know we have a great deal of work to do. In more than half of the United States, you can be fired for being LGBT—that's right, a boss can walk into a workplace in 29 states and say, “I don't like faggots; you're fired,” and it's completely legal. In 31 states, landlords can say, “I ain't renting to no queers” and have the full force of the law behind them. And let's not forget that two-thirds of LGBT Americans still live in states that deny them marriage equality.

But in OC, things are looking up. The Center and the rest of the LGBT community will only continue to grow as more and more people realize it's safe to come out, as more of us get married and have families. Hell, maybe even the religious right will grow to accept that their marriages aren't crumbling because of us.

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