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Column: How a pious lifeguard made L.A.’s beaches an unlikely battlefield in the culture wars

 A rainbow-colored lifeguard tower was unveiled at Long Beach in June 2021
A rainbow-colored lifeguard tower was unveiled at Long Beach in June 2021
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
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I have to admit, the case of Los Angeles County lifeguard Capt. Jeffrey Little has me scratching my head.

Little is the veteran lifeguard who filed a religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation lawsuit last month against the county Fire Department, which includes lifeguards. Little alleges that he was forced to work under a version of the rainbow-hued Pride flag during June, which is celebrated as LGBTQ+ Pride month, in violation of his deeply held religious beliefs.

Little believes it’s an infringement of his civil rights to be required to hoist the flag or to supervise people who hoist it. It also seems he doesn’t want to work at any beach where the flag is flown. The lawsuit is a little fuzzy on those points.

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Anyway, I believe him when he says that he is sincerely offended by displays of queer and transgender pride. But I would also describe his position as bigoted, along the lines of those who invoke their Christian faith to explain why they oppose interracial marriage, for example. I am not a fan of people who use the Bible to deny the very humanity of others.

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Little claims in his lawsuit that the Progress Pride flag in question symbolizes and advances “a range of controversial religious and moral views, including about the family, the nature of marriage and human sexuality including the promotion of certain sexual practices, and the identity, nature and purpose of the human person.”

Sexual practices? I think he’s reading an awful lot into a swatch of brightly colored fabric.

Little also claims that he is opposed to the flag because it has been “featured prominently during Gay Pride parades around the world, including those in which adults wear little to no clothing while in the presence of children.”

Excuse me, Los Angeles lifeguard says what?

Has the good captain not noticed how many people are running around L.A. beaches nearly naked on your average sunny day? I mean, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a bikini and dental floss these days. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell who is wearing a thong and who is actually naked.

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But hey, as long as they don’t ask for your sexual orientation while you are caught in a rip tide, even lifeguards are allowed to be bigots, at least in private.

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Imposing their religion on the rest of us is where I draw the line, though. Same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015. Gender is not binary. Trans people exist and deserve respect. Flying the Pride flag is a symbolic way of saying, “You belong too.”

I think Little’s bosses probably mishandled his complaints; they should have anticipated that their struggles with him would provide fodder for a juicy lawsuit such as the one filed by attorneys who work with the Thomas More Society, a conservative Catholic legal advocacy group.

This saga began In March 2023, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to raise the Progress Pride flag at county facilities each June.

This particular flag is a variation on the Pride flag that debuted in San Francisco in 1978. The original flag, as the supervisors noted, “contained eight stripes, each a separate color of the rainbow, plus hot pink.” The colors represent sex, life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic and art, serenity and spirit.

Over the years, the flag’s design has evolved. The widely adopted iteration at issue supplements the original colors with chevron shaped stripes of black and brown (representing marginalized LGBTQ+ people of color and those who have died of or are living with HIV/AIDS) as well as pink, blue and white (incorporating the trans flag).

Interestingly, at least in part of the lawsuit, Little does not take issue with the county’s right to raise the flag, allowing that “the government can speak its own messages.” However, he objects to being required to raise the flag himself.

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At first, he says, the department accommodated him by letting him work at a beach where the Pride flag wasn’t displayed. (Some lifeguard stations lacked the equipment to display the flag.) But he alleges that toward the end of last June, he arrived to work at Dockweiler State Beach to find that the Pride flag had been raised at two lifeguard towers and another building, which he claims was tantamount to religious discrimination.

His first reaction, he recounts, was confusion, “as I was under the impression that I would not have to deal with working in these conditions.” And then he took the flags down.

That was dumb. As you can imagine, this act of apparent insubordination did not go over well with his bosses. He says they revoked his dispensation to avoid beaches with Pride flags.

This was a classic power struggle. Little claims that lifeguard division Chief Fernando Boiteux, whom the lawsuit characterizes as a lot bigger than Little and “trained in martial arts,” physically and verbally intimidated him. “You need to stop what you are doing,” Little claims Boiteux told him. “You are an L.A. County employee; that’s the only thing that matters. Your religious beliefs do not matter.”

I don’t know whether Boiteux actually said that — the Fire Department will not comment on the case — but of course religious beliefs do matter. Even when they are outdated, misguided or bigoted.

If Little’s account is correct, his superiors could certainly have been more tactful and less abrasive in their dealings with him. That might have spared them the ordeal of being sued in federal court at a moment when religious bigotry is being enshrined in law by our Supreme Court.

It’s too bad, but probably inevitable, that the Progress Pride flag has become a battleground in the culture war. And it’s too bad that Little didn’t try just a little harder to love his neighbor.

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@robinkabcarian

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