1970s candidate promised same-sex marriages
The gay marriage controversy is nothing new to Lawrence.
Thirty-four years ago, a justice of the peace here briefly created a national furor by promising to perform gay marriages.
“He was way ahead of his time,” Lawrence historian Clark Coan said of Phillip Hill, a former Kansas University student and Lawrence High School graduate who was elected to the office in November 1970.
Hill was in his early 20s. A bearded, long-haired, self-proclaimed “dope marketer,” he registered to vote and filed to run for the office of justice of the peace on the same day, just prior to the deadline.
A member of the Youth International (Yippie) Party, Hill filed as a Democrat because no other Democrats were running for justice of the peace, said his friend George Kimball, who accompanied Hill to the Courthouse. Kimball registered to run for sheriff.
Hill had his friends in law school research the duties of the position. When he found that justices of the peace could perform marriages and preside over civil suits with claims of less than $1, he announced he would perform group and same-sex marriages.
“He knew what would be sensational, basically, and he did it,” said Tim Miller, now a KU religion professor and an acquaintance of Hill’s at the time.
Hill was sensational, yet serious.
“He said all kinds of things, but he was serious in that he certainly would have done it,” said Kimball, who now works as a sportswriter for the Boston Herald.
Hill drew national attention. The Associated Press, The Kansas City Star and The Arizona Republic were among media outlets that picked up the story of the Yippie as a justice of the peace-elect.
Most who remember the election at all remember the one-eyed Kimball, who boisterously campaigned for sheriff with the slogan, “I’ll keep an eye out for crime.”
When Kimball lost, he said public officials wiped the sweat off their foreheads in relief.
“They were ready to dance on our graves,” Kimball said.
They didn’t know another left-wing Yippie had run.
“We convened this press conference and said, ‘Here’s your new justice of the peace,'” Kimball said, chuckling.
The press conference at the Gaslight Tavern — now the Kansas Union parking garage at Kansas University — was Hill’s first public appearance. Donning a choir robe and wielding a claw hammer “of justice,” Hill thanked voters for their 6,391 nods of confidence.
“I had their unwavering support without their knowing it,” he said, according to a Nov. 5, 1970, Kansas City Star article. “They just assumed I was another Democrat.”
Hill’s friends recall the dark-horse candidacy as brilliant.
“It was wonderfully stealthy. I think people just thought, ‘Oh, golly, what a nice name,’ and voted for him on that basis,” said Tim Forcade, who knew Hill and his brother Lance Hill in those days.
“Phil Hill just kind of crept in under the radar,” Miller said.
Never took office
But Hill wouldn’t even make his swearing-in before he was removed from office.
Kimball said that once officials found out a Yippie had been elected, they demanded an opinion of attorney general. The lame-duck attorney general, Kent Frizzell, deemed the position obsolete and stripped Hill of office 10 days after his election. The swearing-in ceremony wouldn’t have been until January, two months later.
“They got thoroughly freaked out,” Forcade said.
Hill never got to test his pledge to marry same-sex couples.
Although a gay liberation organization had formed at Kansas University by June of 1970 and two gay couples had filed for marriage licenses by September, some say the public wasn’t as ready to accept homosexual unions as it is now.
“There wouldn’t have been any recognition of gay marriage in Kansas in 1970,” said attorney David Berkowitz, who was active in the Douglas County Democratic Party at the time. “It probably hadn’t crossed anybody’s mind that there could be such a thing.”
Efforts to contact Hill, who now lives near Sacramento, Calif., were unsuccessful.