Orange County Fair officials will continue flying the LGBTQ+ Pride Flag year-round, despite repeated calls by some people to take it down.
For now, the decision wraps up a year-long debate that some say has distracted from the fair’s larger issues around diversity and representation through vendors and events.
But it’s also fueled one of the most visible conversations — at the local level — about the LGBTQ+ community’s place in Orange County in years.
The decision to keep flying the flag came at the Governor-appointed Fair Board’s Thursday meeting.
“All of the comments related to the removal of the flag have helped reaffirm for me, at least, that the flag should continue flying year round,” said director Natalie Rubalcava-Garcia. “What I have learned during this process is we still have a lot of work to do in Orange County.”
The board voted 6-1 Thursday to keep the flag, which represents members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Board Director Barbera Bagneris dissented and Director Newton Pham was absent.
Bagneris wanted to limit flying the flag to just during Pride Month at the state-owned fairgrounds, which sits in Costa Mesa, amid a campaign by some people over the last year to get the flag removed.
Her motion to do that failed for lack of enough support among the board.
“At my job we fly the Pride Flag in June, I have no problem with that … but year-round is the challenge that I had,” said Bagneris before the vote, saying that “when you elevate one group you marginalize the others.”
Bagneris, the board’s only Black woman, recalled her attempt to get a Black Lives Matter flag raised at the fairgrounds in response to the Pride Flag.
That proposal never got enough support from her colleagues on the board — something she said Thursday was “hurtful to my community and to me.”
The flag was first raised in 2019 at the request of former board member Andreas Meyer, who is gay.
The Pride Flag issue drew more than 30 people who called in to comment at the meeting, and a slew of letters to the board by members of the public.
The range of speakers was diverse, featuring prominent community leaders from all parts of the region, like Irvine city politics watchdog Harvey Liss, as well as Jeff LeTourneau, a longtime, openly-gay political activist and member of the county Democratic Party’s Central Committee.
Peg Corley, executive director for the LGBTQ Center OC, reminded the board during public comments that the flag represents much more than lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning people — it also symbolizes intersectionality with different ethnicities, religions, and “all walks of life.”
“Removing it now would be worse than never having raised it,” Corley said.
Resident Todd Martin rejected the notion that critics of the flag, such as him, were coming from a place of hate.
“I think that’s totally unfair. If you knew me … you know I don’t have any hate for people. To be labeled that way, it feels divisive,” Martin said, before adding the flag “does not represent all of us.”
Martin continued: “I understand the gay people and the Pride Flag and how it makes them feel better … I would like equal representation … (the flag) doesn’t come across to me as being fair at all. I feel totally excluded.”
At the beginning of the meeting, Board Director Ashleigh Aitken gave a speech about her support for the flag, at one point referencing the 2018 killing of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein in Lake Forest — a killing that rocked south Orange County.
The incident was labeled a “hate crime” by authorities, as Bernstein, who was stabbed 20 times, was gay and Jewish. The person suspected and charged with killing him, Bernstein’s former classmate Samuel Woodward, was connected to an extremist hate group, according to ProPublica.
Aitken, before her vote in support of the flag, said it can sometimes be difficult to “find common ground with those who are different from ourselves.” But, she added: “I see the Pride Flag and see myself as a Catholic, I see myself as a mother, and I see myself as a woman.”
While “the flag flying outside our building is just a piece of fabric,” Aitken said, “my ask would be to the public that we all find at least one thread in that flag’s fabric that speaks to us. Because if we can do that, that is progress. That is why the flag is important.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.