Recently, we celebrated Pride Month, which each June commemorates the Stonewall Riots and the march for LGBTQ+ civil rights. But this past year, Pride Month was marked by a series of disturbing displays of intolerance and hate directed at the LGBTQ+ community, particularly here in Orange County, where we both reside and call home.
It started at the beginning of the summer with a 3-2 vote by Orange County supervisors to ban LGBTQ+ Pride Flags in county buildings. Then, the City of Huntington Beach voted to ban Pride flags in municipal buildings. Soon after the ban was enacted, residents in Huntington Beach saw another wave of hate-filled flyers. School districts in Orange County, like Newport Mesa Unified School District continue to fight off parent factions that want to ban LGBTQ+-themed books in school libraries and Orange County cities seek to ban LGBTQ+ books from their public libraries.
This month, the Orange Unified School District passed a new policy that would require parents to be notified within days of learning that a student identifies as a gender that does not align with their birth certificate.This policy and others like it violate transgender and non-binary students’ right to privacy and safety while at school. Is it any wonder that during Pride month this year, we saw a disconcerting number of attacks on the LGBTQ+ community?
The movement to erase and systematically discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities is a deadly one. What political pundits describe as “wedge issues” too often materialize into real-world physical violence that disproportionately claim the lives of marginalized people, especially transgender and gender non-conforming people, who according to the Human Rights Campaign, have experienced the highest levels of murders in the years 2020 and 2021 since the organization started tracking this violence in 2013.
In Orange County, these aren’t just statistics. Almost six years ago, nineteen-year-old Blaze Bernstein, a gay Jewish college student who attended the University of Pennsylvania, was repeatedly stabbed to death in an alleged hate crime by a former high school classmate, with ties to white nationalist and right-wing extremist groups awaits trial. Blaze’s alleged killer will be tried for murder with additional hate crime charges this fall. While the murder of George Floyd occurred over two years after Blaze’s in 2020, the subsequent trial and convictions in that case also happened over two years ago in 2021! The Bernstein family waits patiently, reflecting on the unfairness that their son’s murder did not command the same urgency for justice. The LGBTQ+ community deserves equal justice and equal outrage by all of us when their members are targeted for hate.
As allies of the LGBTQ+ community, we urge all Orange County residents to disavow the toxic hate that threatens the safety and wellbeing of our neighbors and children. We can no longer allow the hateful actions of a few vocal extremists to continue to define Orange County as a place that is unwelcome to diversity. That is not who we are. Blaze’s parents, Jeanne Pepper and Gideon Bernstein continue to fight internet hate speech, advocate for the LGBTQ+ community and educate the public on the dangers of unchecked hate. How far are we as a vibrant, thriving and diverse community willing to allow anti-LGBTQ+ policies to go? When is enough, enough?
Orange County’s embrace of diversity and differences have made it the thriving cultural hub and economy we enjoy today. As State Senator representing over 1.1 million residents of the 37th Senate District, which includes the cities of Anaheim Hills, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Newport Beach, Orange Tustin, and Villa Park, Dave Min has seen personally the importance of inclusive messaging to all of our different diverse communities, who often have received mixed signals as to how welcome they are here in Orange County. Symbols like the Pride Flag send a clear message to our LGBTQ+ neighbors that they belong here and are welcomed here. Conversely, when cities and counties vote to ban the Pride Flag, even on ostensibly content-neutral grounds, it sends a starkly contrary message that they do not belong.
Community organizations and activists also serve a crucial role in building bridges to the vibrant LGBTQAI+ community that exists here in the OC. One notable example of this is #BlazeItForward, which was founded by the Bernstein family to honor the life and memory of their son Blaze Bernstein, with the goal and mission of educating, improving, and building our local communities with one intentional act of kindness at a time. The public can join the community and learn about opportunities and examples of community service on Facebook’s public group aptly named #BlazeitForward. When we see or hear these attacks against LGBTQ+ people, we have a responsibility to reject them and instead “Blaze it forward” with kindness. We have a responsibility to lead with compassion – not just in memory of Blaze Bernstein, but all those who have fallen victim to hate.
The toxic headlines, viral videos, and extremist politicians that use LGBTQ+ residents to score political points are but a small, vocal minority that do not reflect the overwhelming majority of residents who support and affirm our LGBTQ+ communities. They do not reflect the majority of Orange County families, nonprofits, small businesses, and global companies and private headquarters who celebrated LGBTQ+ Pride Month this past June.
Because the truth is, all of us have the power to reclaim Orange County values as values of diversity and inclusion. That’s who we are and that’s who we have always been. Now, go make a difference and #Blazeitforward for a better Orange County and world.
Senator Dave Min represents California State Senate District 37, which is located in Orange County and includes the communities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Foothill Ranch, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Newport Beach, Orange, Tustin, and Villa Park. Prior to his election to the Senate, Dave was a University of California Irvine law professor.
Jeanne Pepper Bernstein is the mother of Blaze Bernstein. In 2018, Blaze was 19 years old when he was murdered in what has been called a hate crime. Blaze was both Gay and Jewish. Since his death, Jeanne and her husband Gideon have called for acceptance of marginalized people, community activism and intentional acts of kindness to empower communities to fight against hatred and injustice and to envision a kinder more caring world. Jeanne is an attorney, writer and activist who speaks to students, parents and organizations; sharing her story and encouraging others to take action and practice intentional kindness. The platform they created for gathering information during Blaze’s disappearance was later called the #BlazeItForward movement and is also a public group on Facebook.
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