Laguna Beach was quiet on June 26.
One of the most significant milestones in gay history – the right to marry – came and passed, but you wouldn’t have known it in Laguna. No dancing in the streets; no crowding in the bars; no rallies on Main Beach.
The only rainbow flag lay atop the sole surviving gay bar, Club Bounce.
Ask around and many said they celebrated at home or went to the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, along with activists from across the county. Later that night, a group went to ReMark’s to rejoice.
Laguna is still alluring to artists, freethinkers and the gay community.
What is disputed is how active that community is.
Some who have remained in Laguna say the city has gone through a “degayification,” as one writer on gay issues put it.
Some say higher real estate prices are to blame – Long Beach, San Diego and the desert are more attractive for younger and older couples. Others say the town doesn’t need gay pride or gay bars; Laguna is known for its acceptance.
While many gay residents have grown apathetic, discussing the dwindling gay infrastructure, a handful of activists argue it’s up to the city and local organizations to enliven what once was a thriving place for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders – before it’s too late.
In the 1960s, Laguna Beach was the spot for hippies, musicians and artists. Main Beach, known as the tourist beach, was the epicenter of the city’s gay culture, with two beachfront gay bars, Dante’s and Barefoot.
But when the city decided to make it a public park, the “gay ghetto” moved a mile south to the 1400 block of South Coast Highway – where the Coast Inn, Boom Boom Room and a gay dinner house sat. The latter, now Avila’s El Ranchito, most recently was Woody’s, but it has had various incarnations over the years.
Bob Gentry was the first openly gay elected official in Orange County when he became mayor of Laguna Beach in 1982, further welcoming the gay community to town. He served during the height of the AIDS crisis.
In 2007, the gay community was dealt a blow with the closure of Woody’s and the iconic Boom Boom Room. “The Boom,” as called by its patrons, was argued to be the oldest gay bar on the West Coast and was open about 60 years.
Fred Karger, a gay rights activist who led the “Save the Boom” campaign, showed up to a City Council meeting with petitions stacked high in a wheelbarrow, pleading for city officials to help stop the closure. His 6,000 signatures didn’t halt the closing.
Although there’s only one gay nightclub in town now, crowds still go to West Street, the unofficial gay beach. Karger heard it had more beachgoers on the Fourth of July – a big holiday in the gay community – than maybe what was there in the 1970s.
A handful of regulars tossed back drinks on a recent afternoon at Club Bounce.
“Look around at this bar. What’s the average age … 60, 70?” asked Mark Freeman, a Laguna resident for 39 years. “Younger people can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Freeman isn’t the only one to point to real estate as a factor in the “gay flight” from Laguna. In the past 20 years, many residents moved to the desert because it was more affordable. Investors followed, and now Palm Springs markets itself as a destination for the gay or lesbian traveler.
Real estate affects everyone, gay or straight, said Gentry, the former mayor. He calls it a secondary factor.
At first glance, Hillcrest, a neighborhood in San Diego, has a lot in common with Laguna. It’s a bohemian village, known for artists, funky shops and great restaurants. It also is known as the gay part of town; many establishments boast rainbow flags, and the city hosts regular gay events. It held its first gay pride parade in the 1970s. The community also supports gay-friendly businesses with a directory.
Hillcrest Town Council Chairman Luke Terpstra said “from the get-go,” the residents found it important to elect gay members to the San Diego City Council, where they are represented by District 3 member Todd Gloria. Although real estate is pricy in Hillcrest, Terpstra said the gay community will find a way to afford an area where they feel welcome.
Audrey Prosser, a Laguna resident and LGBT activist, looks at places like Hillcrest, Long Beach and Provincetown, R.I., as examples of cities “tapping the gay dollar.” She wants to plan gay weekends or weeks in Laguna.
Laguna Councilman Steve Dicterow said he’s supportive of gay pride events in town but thinks it’s in the hands of local organizations, not city officials.
“I don’t look at Laguna as being straight-friendly or gay-friendly. We are everything-friendly,” Dicterow said. “If they want to have gay pride weekend events, I’ll be the first one in line to be there.”
When asked whether the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce should be looking into it, Dicterow responded: “Absolutely, they should.”
There might not be a gay pride parade or gay bars, but some say that doesn’t mean the gay community has left Laguna.
The community is just different, said Club Bounce bartender Michael Witkowski. There’s no need for gay establishments with the normalization of gay culture.
The reversal of the Defense of Marriage Act also marks an increasing tourism market in the LGBT community: weddings.
‘In Touch’ recently had seven pages on gay weddings in Palm Springs,” Freeman said.
“It had a Post-it note on Laguna.”
North along I-405, the Long Beach Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce shifted to focus on publicizing its wedding vendors to get the city known as a destination, Board President Laura Lara said.
Look at the beaches any day and see plenty of couples lured to Laguna as a romantic spot for engagement or wedding photos, Councilwoman Toni Iseman said.
The Laguna Chamber of Commerce agreed that the market isn’t being tapped in town, but the question is, who starts the conversation?
“I’m not sure who. … Should it be the visitors bureau? Should they be the ones doing the mar-keting?” Kristine Thalman, executive director of the chamber, asked.
The chamber gets direction from its board and chamber members, she said. Gay-friendly establishments such as ReMark’s, the Koffee Klatch and Club Bounce are not chamber members.
Judy Bijlani, president of the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau, said it doesn’t specifically target the gay community; it markets to the community the same way it markets to the rest of the general population, with “mass media marketing” in magazines, newspapers and on television.
“We’re ‘gay-friendly,’ but I don’t see any signs of it. I don’t see any signs at the visitors bureau. I don’t see any signs at the Chamber of Commerce,” Prosser said.
Laguna Beach was one of the first cities to file an amicus brief opposing Proposition 8, Prosser pointed out. Thousands marched through the city after the proposition passed in a demonstration organized by Prosser.
“We were progressive then,” she said. “Let’s do it again.”