Thousands of people turned out Saturday for what longtime activists said could be the largest LGBTQ pride event in Orange County history.

“It’s good for us to know we’re all here,” said Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Joe Shaw, who was on-hand at the Orange County Pride Festival in downtown Santa Ana.

“Orange County is not going backwards. We’re going forward.”

The festival featured dozens of booths, including the Orange County chapters of the Democratic Party and Log Cabin Republicans, the county’s Health Care and Social Services agencies and religious groups like the Episcopal Church:

Laura Kanter, director of youth services at The Center OC, noted the wide age, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity being celebrated at the festival.

“I think it’s amazing that this is happening in Santa Ana,” Kanter said.

One example of the diversity was the live music and dancing, which ranged from rock to electronic to Mexican ballet folklórico:

Youth activists also had a booth, where The Center OC invited various groups to advocate their causes.

Students with the center’s Youth Empowered to Act program manned part of the booth, and were joined by DeColores Queer Orange County, the immigration-focused Orange County Dream Team and the California Endowment-funded Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities initiative.

At their booth, high school and college students gathered petition signatures for Orange County school districts to fully implement state laws related to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, or LGBTQ, people.

“We know these laws exist and we’re going to make sure that they’re implemented in our schools,” said Cindy Cuevas, a student at Valley High School in Santa Ana.

The petition calls for the implementation of the anti-bullying Seth’s Law, the LGBTQ and disability history-focused FAIR Education Act, and a transgender students law that went into effect this year.

Cuevas and others said they plan to present the petition to school boards across the county.

Much of the student organizing has been fostered by The Center OC, which holds regular meetings with students on how do advocate for safer schools.

In interviews at the festival, several students said much progress has been made on campus, but several challenges remain.

High school students in Fullerton, for example, were prohibited from performing The Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming.

Shepard’s death shone a nationwide spotlight on hate crimes against LGBTQ people, and led to an expansion of the federal hate crimes law to include those motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The school district’s superintendent, Dr. George Giokaris, deemed the play too mature and wouldn’t allow it to be performed, said Valerie Paniagua, a recent Sunny Hills High graduate who now attends Fullerton Junior College.

The district has allowed other plays with mature themes, advocates have pointed out, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, which includes themes around rape, racism, and violence.

Giokaris previously met with Paniagua in person, she said, but he hasn’t returned her follow-up phone calls and emails.

Sarah Salvatierra, a senior at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, said she’s been trying to start a gay-straight alliance at the private Catholic school, but that the administration hasn’t allowed it.

Some of her friends on campus haven’t yet come out as LGBTQ, she added.

Jose Avonce, a senior at Newport Harbor High School, said that his school has become very accepting.

But during a lesson in his Advanced Placement U.S. History class on civil rights movements in the 1960s, Avonce said his teacher didn’t mention the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a watershed moment for gay rights in America.

So Avonce said he raised his hand and asked about Stonewall.

His teacher replied the incident was too controversial to discuss in class, Avonce recalled.

Yet when it came time to take their AP U.S. History exam, which follows a national curriculum, the test had a question on Stonewall, he said.

And California schools are now required, under the FAIR Education Act, to teach about historical contributions of LGBT people, Avonce noted.

Avonce said he hopes to join with his school’s BRIDGES youth program and gay-straight alliance to talk to Newport Harbor’s principal and social studies department chair about including LGBT history – including Stonewall, the AIDS epidemic and Harvey Milk – in their curriculum.

Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and California’s first openly gay elected official, was shot to death in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, by Dan White, a former member of the Board of Supervisors.

Avonce said the students could also take their message to the Newport-Mesa school board.

Many advocates noted a generational difference in attitudes toward LGBTQ people, including in Latino, Vietnamese and religious communities and on school campuses.

“You can see the younger generation is more accepting,” said Hieu Nguyen, co-chair of the community group Viet Rainbow of Orange County.

Viet Rainbow is currently conducting a survey of perceptions of LGBTQ people within Little Saigon and plans to publish the results, Nguyen said. Such research, which was funded by Southern California Edison, has never been done before, he added.

The group is also hosting a masquerade and costume ball in Huntington Beach on Oct. 19, one of several LGBTQ community events in the coming months.

The Orange County Dream Team, which is primarily focused on immigration reform, has planned a Drag Knows No Borders event for Aug. 22 in Costa Mesa.

And The Center OC has planned a transgender beauty pageant, Hermosa y Protegida, for Sept. 19 in Costa Mesa.

Events like the pageant help raise awareness of the transgender community, said Katya Delariva, an advocate with Transaneros en Acción.

There’s a slight change in the Latino community toward being more accepting of LGBTQ people, she added, due in large part to more families now talking about sexual orientation at home.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Delariva said.

As people partied on Saturday, Kanter hoped they would also see the value of becoming politically active.

“There’s always going to be people trying to undo any progress that we make,” said Kanter.

Reflecting on the Dream Team’s activism on LGBTQ issues, Kanter said it’s important that all marginalized communities work together on creating change.

“If we all got together and worked together, it would be an unstoppable swell,” said Kanter.

Youth advocates, meanwhile, said their movement is growing in Orange County schools and colleges.

“So many of these young people are opening their eyes” to how diverse the world is, said Vincent Buendia, a junior at Gilbert High School in Anaheim who co-founded the gay straight alliance group at his school.

“It’s really amazing to see.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Orange County Congregation Community Organization had a booth at the festival.

You can reach Nick Gerda at, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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