Our neighbors have been going to San Francisco a lot lately. Just visiting, they insist. Now that their two children are launched, they’ve leased a second home there. Not to whine, but we miss them. We like their kids. We like their dog. We like listening to their cocktail glasses clink when they have parties. Without them, the block lacks a certain joie de vivre, a certain neighborly something. So over a glass of wine, I asked whether they were ditching us.
Of course not, they told us. For one thing, their children would never tolerate the sale of the family home. They were just branching out now that their nest is mostly empty. They were making the best of some Bay Area business commitments. Then it came out: They love our neighborhood, but as a gay couple, they’re weary of the random intolerance in Orange County. And the more times change, the less patient they are.
When Americans think about intolerance, Southern California is rarely the first place that comes to mind. We’re the land of the laid-back, the melting pot in the sunshine. But here as everywhere, mutual acceptance is a work in progress. “It’s not just the big things,” the neighbors said. “It’s the little things.”
For instance: Suppose you volunteered at Habitat for Humanity to help build houses, as they did during the Proposition 8 furor, only to overhear the guy next to you complain that Orange County needed to “get rid of the faggots.” Suppose your husband were injured and your emergency room intake worker, like theirs, refused to believe you were his legal next of kin. Suppose you joined a big church, as one of them did briefly, only to learn that some fellow congregants had a passion: buying property from people like you, and reselling to people who are more like them.
Suppose you and your spouse couldn’t feel right holding hands in public, because someone might be offended. My neighbors have been married since 2008; they’re among the 18,000 or so same-sex couples who wed after the state Supreme Court permitted such unions and before the passage of Proposition 8, which halted them, pending court appeals. The law was on their side at “I do,” but no matter. They still never know if people here will pat them on the back, or picket their “lifestyle.”
“When we tell people here we’re married, they go, ‘Oh! How cool!’ ” my neighbor said. “But there’s that look in their eyes, like, ‘Actually, it’s not cool.’ And the truth is, it’s not ‘cool.’ It’s not something we did for kicks. It’s our marriage, damn it. It’s our family.”
Understanding can be elusive in a place as diverse as Orange County. Change makes people anxious. We don’t know what we don’t know; words come out in ways we don’t intend. But the fact that most of us just want to live and let live gets eclipsed by—I’ll just say it—our reputation for narrow-mindedness.
The Klansmen may have left Anaheim, and skinheads may no longer terrorize Laguna Beach bars, but sometimes it seems we didn’t all get the memo. Orange County documented 64 hate crimes last year. The local newspaper has so many bigoted online comments that the alternative weekly, for laughs, turned them into a running feature. We have good schools, diverse workplaces, and global connections; we also have immigrant-bashers, school bullying of gay kids, and mosques in which we spy on suburban Muslims.
It’s sad, and it costs us. We’re not only losing good people, but part of our better nature—that joie de vivre, that certain something. The world is small; no one should have to leave town just to hold hands with their husband. And nice places miss out when they can’t let go of intolerance.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue.