Archive for Monday, July 14, 2003

Topeka gay-activist groups lobby for anti-discrimination ordinance

July 14, 2003

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— Outsiders often assume this community is a conservative place where social change occurs slowly.

After all, a Kansas law specifically criminalizing gay sex remained on the books this year, after most other states had repealed theirs. And among the Kansas capital's 122,000 residents is a minister whose church has offended people across the nation with anti-homosexual pickets and signs with slogans like "God hates fags."

But Topeka also is home to activists seeking an ordinance that would protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

The City Council narrowly rejected such a proposal last year, and a national group has made enacting an ordinance its priority. Activists, cheered by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated state laws against gay sex, plan to revive their proposal, perhaps this coming fall.

The activists face a reluctant council and more than a few Topeka residents who find the anti-gay picketing offensive but also view homosexuality as morally wrong. Yet supporters of a gay rights ordinance believe they can enact protections against discrimination.

"We think what is happening here in Topeka is incredibly important for our movement for equal rights across the country," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Talk of another attempt at enacting an ordinance does not surprise Dan Walker, spokesman for the Family Action Network, a nondenominational group that opposes the idea. He said gays and lesbians were seeking special rights and were working toward legalizing gay marriages.

"The endgame in all of this is acceptance of homosexuality in Christianity," Walker said. "That's never going to happen. There's always going to be a remnant that adheres to the Scriptures."

Polarizing issue

The vote last September was 5-4 against an ordinance, described as an anti-discrimination or human-rights proposal by its supporters and as a broad special-rights enactment by opponents.

The ordinance's sponsor, council member Lisa Hecht, lost her seat in an April municipal election, largely over that single issue. That dampened other council members' interest in taking up the issue.

Council member Duane Pomeroy, who voted for the ordinance last year, said it polarized the community and recalled his advice to supporters: "Don't bring it up unless you're fairly confident you have the votes or can get the votes."

A council member who voted no, Harold Lane, said he would not be surprised if the issue arose again but, "I haven't heard anyone bring it up."

That's in sharp contrast to what Foreman and other activists said is the interest in pursuing the ordinance among his group, gays and lesbians, and others. Activists have started raising money and going door-to-door to build support; they hope a proposal will be introduced to the council in November.

Federal precedence

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling June 26 in a Texas case, striking down that state's anti-sodomy law, undercut one argument against the proposed Topeka ordinance, that the city should not extend protection to residents who are likely violating Kansas law. State officials said the court ruling invalidated the Kansas law as well.

Foreman had predicted the ruling before it occurred, seeing it as part of a trend of growing tolerance for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. He, like Topeka residents who back an ordinance, believe a majority support barring discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation.

Walker's group said the ordinance would require businesses having contracts with the city to hire gays and lesbians under the guise of affirmative action. Also, he said, it would have forced landlords to rent property to non-married couples, gay or straight, even if those landlords viewed living together as morally wrong.

Supporters of the ordinance argued such criticisms are distortions; Walker said the ordinance is drafted more broadly than supporters acknowledge.

But the debate eventually involves conflicting views of homosexuality and whether people choose to be gay or are born gay.

"Why should someone be discriminated against just because of who they are?" said Bill Beachy, spokesman for Concerned Citizens of Topeka, a group formed by both gay and straight Topekans to answer the anti-gay picketing in the city.

But Walker said: "Homosexuality is a choice. It's not a sexual orientation. It's a sexual preference."

The Phelps factor

Enacting an ordinance in Topeka might not be as important to the national task force were it not for the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church.

For more than a dozen years, church members, many related to the pastor by blood or marriage, have picketed, becoming fixtures outside funerals for AIDS victims, venues for major events and other churches -- including Walker's -- believed to be too quiet about "the sodomite agenda."

Phelps has been interviewed repeatedly, most recently by Hustler magazine. Playright Moises Kaufman portrayed Phelps -- unfairly, the pastor said, but accurately, others thought -- in "The Laramie Project," about the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. Phelps' church flies the American and Canadian flags upside down -- the Canadian on top because of that nation's acceptance of gay marriages.

And Phelps relishes another battle in Topeka, saying, "It'd just be fun."

"They know that whatever they do, here we are, saying it is a monstrous sin in the face of God," Phelps said. "They know if they can't break us in this place, they've lost the war, no matter what the successes elsewhere."

Foreman said that some of his fellow activists outside Kansas assume that Phelps shows "nothing pro-gay can happen" in Topeka.

"We're going to show it can -- and will," he said. "By winning in Topeka, it gets easier everywhere."

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