The rainbow Pride Flag will continue to fly at the Orange County Fairgrounds for now, said officials at a Wednesday meeting which came on the heels of a survey seeking opinions on the symbolic banner.
The flag representing the LGBTQ+ community has flown at the state property in Costa Mesa since 2019, drawing the ire of some county residents and churchgoers.
The news of the survey fueled the public debate around the flag, as well as discourse on the LGBTQ+ experience in Orange County.
The Pride Flag took center stage even as a new fair committee has been trying to tackle broader issues of diversity at the popular OC Fair, focused largely on a lack of food and beverage sellers that capture the multiethnic essence of the region.
Fair officials have long faced complaints that their summer showcase of food and rides typically features plenty of fried food vendors from out of state but a shortage of those from the county.
Those issues and a wave of social justice protests over the summer last year prompted the creation of a committee to explore how the fair could better reflect the county’s diversity.
But in doing so fair officials provided a forum for the debate around the flag to rise to the forefront.
As a result, critics of the flag made themselves heard over the last year, prompting the survey seeking public opinion on the banner’s fate.
At Wednesday’s committee meeting, advocates of the flag shot back in large numbers.
Pamela Smith, one of the speakers and regular fairgoer, said the flag is a welcome sign at the fair to people of all sexualities and gender identities who might not otherwise feel safe or accepted by their own families and friends.
“When you’re at risk of death and rejection, you try to go to people who don’t want to hurt you,” Smith said. “That’s why the flag is so important … it represents feeling safe and included in our county, at a time where there’s a lot of violence and hatred right now.”
Fair board director Nicholas Kovacevich — who’s on the fair’s two-member community affairs committee tasked with tackling the diversity issue — repeatedly told speakers throughout the meeting there were no current plans to take down the flag, despite the fair sending out the survey.
Some people on Wednesday repeated what critics of the Pride Flag claimed at past meetings: The banner could make other groups, like religious organizations, feel excluded.
“If we’re going to talk about diversity and inclusion, I think we need to look at that as part of our community of faith-based people,” said Wendy Leece, a commenter.
Another speaker, who identified herself as Jerilynn and has spoken repeatedly on the Pride Flag issue at fair board meetings, called for “other flags” to be flown “that represent other people’s interests. That’s what diversity is about.”
Gabrielle Gutierrez said she and her fiancee are both members of the LGBTQ+ community who moved to Orange County a few years ago.
In the time since, Gutierrez said they’ve faced enough discrimination to prompt them to rethink living in the county despite the fact that they both work here.
Gutierrez, responding to the claim that the Pride Flag makes other groups feel excluded, also said “nobody is telling Little League they cannot thrive. Nobody is actively trying to disband the Little League community or any of the other communities that were brought up.”
Reggie Mundekis, a government watchdog and close observer of the fair board, voiced support for the Pride Flag but also turned the focus to the diversity issue as it pertains to what kind of food and events are offered at the fair.
“We need an OC Fair that actually has businesses and food and beverage sellers from OC. We have an extraordinary Vietnamese community, but I can’t get a banh mi sandwich at the OC Fair. We have Little Arabia in Anaheim, and I can’t get a decent kebab or falafel at the OC Fair,” she said.
One reason for this, Mundekis pointed out, is that “the OC Fairgrounds communicates mostly in English and occasionally in Spanish.”
“We need to change that by welcoming people in their language and speaking their languages to get them to participate and feel welcome,” she added. Once fair officials do that, she said, “you will start to see more of their businesses.”
Another speaker, Joshua Block, echoed Mundekis on diversity at the fair, adding officials could have a “unique opportunity” to help local small businesses — namely those owned by people of color — who have been hurt by the economic downturns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve been going to the fair since I was young, and there was a lot of, um, white and greasy food to not put it the nicest (way),” Block said. “But I think there’s a real opportunity to have food from different cultures across Orange County and Southern California, which I didn’t see that often.”
At the end of the Wednesday committee meeting, Kovacevich welcomed the feedback and said it would be rolled into a report and presented to the entire fair board at its next session on Jan. 28.