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For many, the idea of Pride calls to mind a celebration — a party in the streets, affirming not just a sense of visibility for LGBTQ+ people, but belonging for a community whose leaders say there’s still work to be done in Orange County.

A Pride display of another type paraded through the county’s halls of government this year, in the form of policy movements around, for instance, city funding for transgender community assistance in Santa Ana.

The issue prompted transgender people to show up and show out in numbers during Santa Ana budget meetings — repeatedly — this month, challenging elected officials in public comment to set aside funding for trans-specific housing, healthcare and employment assistance.

The meetings marked transgender visibility in civic affairs at possibly historic levels for Orange County, let alone Santa Ana — a “proud” moment, said trans activist and Santa Ana resident Khloe Rios-Wyatt, in an interview later in the month. 

“After so long, we’re starting to wake up and say ‘We’re here,’ even though we’ve been here for decades and have been ignored.”

Rios-Wyatt, who is the leader of the county’s first trans-led advocacy organization, Alianza Translatinx

The Democrat-filled Santa Ana City Council has yet to formally discuss her group’s demands from the public dais.

Meanwhile, efforts to get Pride flags flying outside city halls throughout the county persist.

It all begs the question in Orange County of where local leaders and self-proclaimed allies are willing to meet the LGBTQ+ community on key issues.

Khloe Rios-Wyatt and other trans activists rallied outside the Santa Ana City Council meeting chambers on June 15, 2021 as the panel was set to finalize this year’s new budget. Credit: Courtesy of Hairo Cortes

Yet, for a region so often tied to intolerance, Orange County has a history of leading the conversation around what it means to have pride.

As West Hollywood was becoming West Hollywood, the City of Garden Grove in the late 1960s through 1980s was known for its larger gallery of gay nightclubs — a haven for those who wanted to find community, and a public statement of existence — until many of them shuttered.

And before a debate over police officers attending Pride celebrations made national headlines this year, that dispute played out during the Orange County Pride Parade in 2019 between activists and the LGBTQ Center OC.

It was the 30th annual parade that year, and activists said they were blindsided by the Center OC’s decision to allow uniformed officers to march with their cohort. 

On one hand, proponents for cops attending Pride have argued that it plays into the spirit of inclusion — an opportunity for LGBTQ+ police officers, after all, to take part and be represented.

But to critics, who at the time expressed ire through Voice of OC community Op-Eds, the very tradition of Pride arose out of the fact that authorities tasked with protecting people’s safety were often the biggest safety threat to the LGBTQ+ community.

“The Stonewall riots were physical acts of resistance to the routine raids and violent mistreatment of LGBTQ people by police and a major catalyst in generating our modern fight for LGBTQ rights,” wrote Laura Kanter, co-founder of the Orange County LGBTQ+ Policing Partnership and the Orange County Equality Coalition, in a community opinion piece.

Left to right, Emmalee, 15, and Hailey, 15, help set up pinwheels by the “Ladera Loves Pride” sign and were in attendance to support the LGBTQ community at the “Ladera Love Pride Parade” in Ladera Ranch on Friday June 25, 2021. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

Such was indeed the case in Orange County, said Rusty Kennedy, who steered the OC Human Relations Commission from 1981 through 2016. 

In the late 1970s, “police would go into park bathrooms or send in a cop to just sit there and entrap a gay person into making a pass at them, or hang out in the parking lot of gay bars to see if there were hookups going on out there,” Kennedy said in a Monday interview.

Activists said the Center OC invited officers to march with them, armed and uniformed, without consulting the community. 

The Center OC, a few months after the Pride Parade and the outcry, later committed to doing more outreach, stating in October that year: 

“Our decision to allow uniformed police officers to march with us, may not have served our entire community. For those who felt further marginalized by our decision, we sincerely apologize.”

Stephanie Wade — a transgender woman, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and co-chair for the LGBTQ+ political group known as the Lavender Democrats of Orange County — notes Orange County’s LGBTQ+ center was one of the first to ever spring up in the country.

[There’s been a sea change] “across the nation, including Orange County, because we came out and we spoke up for ourselves. We’ve won all these allies, and just about everyone now knows someone who’s gay.”

Stephanie Wade — a transgender woman, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and co-chair for the LGBTQ+ political group known as the Lavender Democrats of Orange County

In the ever-shifting political dynamic of what’s now considered a Purple county, Wade said less and less local politicians — regardless of their political party affiliations — are placating voices of homophobia and hate.

“It’s really a vocal minority that’s antagonistic to our full inclusion in society,” said Wade. 

This year, OC Fair officials resisted a campaign by some residents to get rid of the Pride Flag, which flies at the fairgrounds all year. Residents who opposed the flag said it made certain groups, such as religious organizations, feel excluded. 

Fair Board members, in rejecting those calls, said the flag represents everyone.

The Pride Flag flies at the Orange County Fairgrounds year-round. Credit: GARRETT TROUTMAN, Voice of OC

“Those who adhere to this minority are going to placate a smaller and smaller group of people, and the rest of us are going to get to know our friends and neighbors and help recover from the past harms done,” Wade said. 

Take Republican county Supervisor Andrew Do, for example, who — along with Democratic Supervisor Doug Chaffee — put his name on a letter this year to the county’s congressional delegation supporting some type of legislation that would correct the ‘dishonorable discharge’ of transgender people from the U.S. Military on the basis of their identity. 

The April 8 letter details how “military discharge documents … may contain adverse remarks related to veterans’ gender nonconformity, sexual orientation or incorrect names due to transgender status.”

“Such actions affect the honor, medical and financial benefits, and employment status of these veterans well after the Department of Defense acknowledged their right to serve in the military,” reads the letter, which notes that in Orange County, an estimated 1,000-1,600 LGBTQ+ veterans are currently affected by such documents.

“Many of whom are most at-risk for housing instability, homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, mental health disparities or suicide,” the letter adds.

Wade was part of an active movement throughout the county in recent years to get cities to fly the Pride Flag outside their government offices. 

On May 22 this year, Harvey Milk Day, activists rallied to get the City of Rancho Santa Margarita to fly the flag outside City Hall. 

“It’s an acknowledgement that the local government supports LGBTQ+ people and their rights,” Wade said. “A way for the government to affirm they support our rights as Americans.”

In Santa Ana, Rios-Wyatt said that means “including transgender people in the city budget.”

Trans people struggle with homelessness and barriers to getting proper health care and housing in the U.S. due to factors like a lack of insurance and unemployment, according to the National Center for Transgender equality.

Rios-Wyatt said Alianza Translatinx is not just asking for city assistance for transgender housing and healthcare needs, but also “internships, job-training, capacity building, job fairs.” 

“We want to make sure our community has the skills to get out in the workforce and eliminate some of those barriers,” she said, adding that her organization offers a slew of services, like hot meals, to community members in need.

But the organization also needs help, Rios-Wyatt said. 

“We have all been working for a year now on volunteer roles. We pay for office space. Because we are such a brand new organization, there’s a lot of barriers in accessing funding — we’re asking (the city) to help us not only sustain the work we’re already doing, but also ensure that Alianza continues to exist.” 

By now, she said, her community “understands that showing up and taking space is what we’re here for, it’s marking the beginning of something. I think Alianza is pushing our community to take space and show out and be there, be present.” 

“And I don’t think it’s a one-time thing.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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