Village Matters

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Seeing Beyond a Label

By Ann Christoph
By Ann Christoph

“You should be aware that not all gays feel well represented by Bob Gentry,” a gay politico told me. “Why not?” I responded. It was 1990 or thereabouts and I was a new naïve councilmember. I didn’t know Bob Gentry when I was first elected, except as a distant figure up on the council dais. Perhaps I knew he was the first openly gay mayor in Orange County, but the implications of gay issues were quite beyond me at that time. “Well, we don’t exactly want to be in the closet; if someone asks us if we’re gay we won’t deny it. But we don’t think we should be so pushy and make it such a prominent public issue. It’s one thing after another with him. He’s always finding a new gay cause to get Laguna Beach involved in. Push too hard and people start to resent it.”

It was true. Bob Gentry found many things to put right, and because of him Laguna Beach was one of the first cities to step forward to pass human rights measures related to sexual orientation. First was an anti-discrimination ordinance in 1984, then an ordinance forbidding discrimination related to an AIDS or HIV diagnosis in 1988. Through his urging, Laguna Beach formed the HIV Advisory Committee and allocated city resources to control the disease and help those who had contracted it. Hagen Place apartments provide housing for those with AIDS/HIV as a result. In 1992 we adopted domestic partnership provisions in the municipal code, a first step in building the national consensus on marriage that the Supreme Court endorsed last week.

“Push hard and people change, society changes.” This was Gentry’s approach in the face of society’s prejudices. In 30 years, it has changed amazingly, due to people like Bob Gentry making it impossible to generalize and categorize a whole group of people. Being out there on the council, being likable, professional, and compassionate over a broad range of issues, made it possible for the public to see him as an individual of merit, who was also gay. By extension then, gays could no longer be lumped in some kind of sub-standard category, but were individuals with the same needs, feelings, rights and abilities to contribute as any other.

Leaders that separate the masses into individuals that people can relate to are catalysts that bring change.

Our world is conflicted due to grouping individuals into categories such as Shiite, Sunni, Palestinian, Israeli, southerners, Texans, New Yorkers and valley girls. The urge to simplify and assume that “they’re all the same” justifies actions from rudeness to atrocities. These are actions that are not possible to reconcile in dealing with an individual.

How appropriate then that just as the Supreme Court validated the right to marry, we celebrate the founding of our nation, based on individual rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We still struggle every day learning for ourselves how to control our tendency to categorize, how to rid ourselves of prejudice, how we can together and individually march on in our pursuit of happiness.

 

Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former City Council member.

 

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