The president of Laguna Beach Pride 365 talks about the organization’s efforts to support the local gay community, the rainbow lifeguard tower coming to West Street Beach and more.
By Sharon Stello
Craig Cooley, president of nonprofit Laguna Beach Pride 365 for the past five years, has committed himself to supporting the local LGBTQ+ community and, most recently, advocated for a rainbow lifeguard tower to be added at West Street Beach; the colorful tower is expected to be installed in early summer.
“About a year ago, Laguna Beach Pride was approached and was asked for help in obtaining permission and funding for a plaque for West Street Beach commemorating it as a fun oasis for the LGBTQ+ community as it had been for decades,” Cooley says. “We came upon the idea of a rainbow lifeguard tower to have somewhere to place the plaque for everyone to see. For more than a year, we have been working hard to make this happen and, with the recent approval by the Laguna Beach City Council, it is happening.”
A $10,000 donation from longtime locals Steve Chadima and Mark Porterfield helped to fund the project. Despite some concerns voiced by residents that the tower could be a target for vandalism or arson, the rainbow lifeguard tower was approved.
Before becoming a nonprofit in 2018, Laguna Beach Pride 365 was an independent group of like-minded individuals creating Pride events whenever possible, Cooley explains. The organization’s mantra is “building unity and commerce through the power of diversity.” “As a nonprofit, we cannot endorse candidates, but we can bring everyone together on important issues to discuss and exchange ideas for the betterment of all parties,” he says.
In addition to organizing the annual Laguna Beach Pride Festival (coming up Aug. 12), the year-round service organization puts on plenty of other events, from fundraisers for nonprofits like the Friendship Shelter to Beach Bonfire Sunset social gatherings, hikes, drag bingo, and health and awareness events.
Cooley worked in hospitality for 30 years in the corporate management and marketing realm, still taking contract work on occasion in this industry. He also hosts a weekly show, “Rainbow Radio,” on Laguna radio station KX FM at 9 a.m. Saturdays. “This is something I love and am passionate about,” Cooley says. “Often, I have guests in the studio or online for interesting and often provocative interviews, along with the latest news and happenings in the LGBTQ-oriented culture …[on] topics from suicide prevention [to] transitioning, hate crimes [and] legislative issues.”
Originally from Yreka in Northern California, Cooley first visited Laguna in 1978 “and caught the love of Laguna bug.” He didn’t get back until 2006, living in town for a few years. Although he now resides in San Juan Capistrano, Cooley says, “my heart remains with Laguna.”
Reflecting on Laguna’s response to the gay community, Cooley says he feels “there was a tide of less than friendly acceptance for a period of years” at the end of the AIDS epidemic, but believes that “once again, the ‘gay’ community is welcomed with open arms.”
Laguna Beach Magazine: What do you like about Laguna Beach?
Craig Cooley: The “freedom culture” that pervades everything, and the love and support of diversity. The freedom to be your true self and the acceptance of all.
Why do you think, historically, this town has been such an enclave for the gay community?
CC: I think Laguna became an escape from harsh judgment, hate and punitive aggression—somewhere you could express yourself without fear of retribution. Early on, the gay culture was immersed in the art[s] culture, a powerful alliance as both were often marginalized. From there, it became a growing bastion of freedom, a safe haven and home for the LGBTQ+ community.
Last fall, the Anchor Line Bar—Laguna’s last gay bar—closed after the owner died. How did you feel about this end of an era?
CC: It was sad to see the last gay bar close its doors. But there is a new gay culture that is more accepting, more visible and looking for a better quality establishment than the … back-door hideaway establishments of the past.
Do you think any changes are needed in Laguna to make it more equitable and welcoming for LGBTQ+ residents and visitors?
CC: Certainly an entertainment dance bar would be an excellent first step. Follow that with getting the word out to the feeder markets as part of a comprehensive marketing plan. … The city is very open and accepting. I feel it is a safe culture where you can be open and true to yourself without fear of threats and conflict. That is huge in my book. That is what makes Laguna Beach what it is and [what it] is famous for.