Three Laguna Beach business owners came to work in June to find their LGBTQ Pride flags missing.
Compass Laguna Beach, Laguna Nursery, and Art of Fitness experienced these thefts on different days in June. All three merchants said it’s hard to accept that the act of stealing the rainbow-colored flag was motivated by homophobia, especially in a town that is a historic gay enclave.
Chris Tebbutt, a Compass agent and founder of Laguna Beach LGBTQ Heritage & Culture Alliance, noticed the real estate brokerage’s pride flag was missing on June 8. He replaced it with a Progress Pride Flag, which includes black and brown stripes to represent LGBTQ+ communities of color, on June 10, which coincidentally is his wedding anniversary.
Tebbutt wants the community to be on alert following the string of pride flag thefts even if the motivation isn’t clear.
“It’s more along the lines of being politically emboldened and in line with other things we’re seeing around the country that are anti-LGBTQ,” Tebbutt said.
For the past six years, the Alliance has handed out rainbow flags to any business or resident who wants one during Pride Month. On average, Tebbutt annually handed out about 50 flags.
In early June, Art of Fitness owner Fernanda Rocha came to work one Saturday and found her pride flag missing. The fact the flag wasn’t left torn or otherwise vandalized left Rocha with questions.
“It’s sad to believe this has been happening in Laguna but I have a hard time thinking this comes from haters or a bad place,” she said. “There’s part of me that thinks it might be tourists or people who want to take the flag back home with them.”
Laguna Beach’s international reputation as a progressive city makes it an attractive location for an individual or group to travel from outside of town and create an uproar over hate-motivated acts or speech, said Peter Levi, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League in Orange County and Long Beach. He cautioned against dismissing the flag thefts as careless acts by intoxicated tourists.
“I wouldn’t chalk this up to levity. Even if people say they’re joking, there’s a hostility and an animus behind that. So rationalizing it or just saying that ‘we’re joking’ is a way to try and dismiss something that is truly hateful and problematic. We’re certainly seeing a backlash against LGBTQ+ folks in a variety of states,” Levi said.
On June 25, Laguna Nursery owner Ruben Flores posted photos showing his flag mount had been yanked out of the wall overnight when someone pulled on his LGBTQ Pride flag and pole.
“We’ve been putting up the gay flag up for the last five years. It’s always been respected or at least smiled at,” Flores said.
“It was obviously a statement to take that flag,” Flores said.
As a gay man, Flores was reluctant to label the theft as homophobic.
“I think it’s a more of an unkind, aggressive trend that is pervasive,” he said.
In 2020, the Orange County Human Relations Council received reports of 12 hate crimes and 22 hate incidents motivated by hate of LGBTQ people. These numbers are much lower than reports related to religion, ethnicity, or national origin but still concern anti-hate advocates.
The number of hate crimes and hate incidents reported in Orange County has grown exponentially since 2016. Experts have attributed this partially to better reporting from the public but also to a group of extremists emboldened by former president Donald Trump and his allies.
None of the three June flag thefts were reported to Laguna Beach police. Mayor Sue Kempf strongly encouraged community members to report hate incidents and crimes to help.
“People should absolutely come forward. Hate is not a value we share in this town. This is sort of indicative of the lack of respect people treat other each with. It’s not just happening here. It’s nationwide,” Kempf said.
She also issued a warning to would-be copycats.
“Now that we know this is happening, these incidents need to be reported and we will follow up,” Kempf said.
The public is invited to contact Laguna Beach police Det. Joy Butterfield, the department LGBTQ liaison. Non-emergency hate incidents should be reported by calling the Laguna Beach police non-emergency line at 949-497-0701.