On December 31, 2009, I picked up my copy of the Goshen News on my porch, opened it up and saw, taking up almost the entire top half of the paper, a photo and headline declaring equal rights the biggest issue of the year in Goshen. Bigger than a visit from President Obama, 18% unemployment, the controversy around a south link road and a major river race redevelopment project.
I'll start from the beginning.
In early Spring 2009, I reluctantly decided to work with Michelle Marquis in an attempt to add four words (and two commas) to the list of protected classes in Goshen's existing Civil Rights Ordinance: "sexual orientation" and "gender identity." Needed because of the statement it makes about the kind of place Goshen is and the discrimination that does happen, I thought that passing the amendment wasn't a big deal.
I was reluctant to get involved because I don't define my life by my sexuality. Ultimately, on local TV and on newspaper front pages I was labeled as the "openly-gay businessman." There are many adjectives that much better define my life; but taking on gay rights forces me to define myself by that one part of me and speak in front of city council and other public groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, about my sex life. It's just weird. But, knowing that I do have abilities and opportunity to effect change, I overcame my reluctancy and jumped into the effort.
Michelle and I took a conversational approach and worked for four months, accomplishing the following:
- signing on Republican Chic Lantz and Democrat Jeremy Stutsman as co-sponsors
- taking the issue to the Civil Rights Commission, who voted to support the amendment
- talking to all city councilpeople about the issues at hand
- petitioning the Goshen Chamber's Public Policy Committee to support the amendment, which they did unanimously (the full board of the chamber ultimately did not endorse the amendment)
- speaking with local pastors, 18 of whom signed a petition to pass the amendment
- having countless conversations with family, friends, business owners, healthcare workers, educators and anyone else who cared to listen
Before the first reading of the amendment by the Council on August 18, WFRN, a local Christian radio station, posted an article on their website stating that the amendment, if passed, would force preschools to hire sex offenders. This was not an unexpected position, as many people equate non-straight sexuality with sexual deviancy. But Goshen residents are reasonable people and, after a council meeting lasting 2.5 hours with 48 people speaking, City Council voted 5-4 to pass the amendment. This is more or less what I expected. Some controversy, some offensive language and Bible-thumping, a mention or two of bestiality, but ultimately, Goshen stands for equality and the vote reflected that.
Because the vote wasn't unanimous, however, the amendment needed to pass a second reading two weeks later.
Seeing the foundation of the city crumbling, as one impassioned citizen phrased it, or perhaps, the possibility for scoring political points, city councilman Daryl Riegsecker banded together with other local politicians, including State Rep.'s Wes Culver, Carlin Yoder and Jackie Walorski and five outside groups, Citizens for Community Values, American Family Association, Indiana Family Institute, Advance America and Alliance Defense Fund, to spearhead an email and media campaign to derail the amendment. City councilpeople started getting thousands of emails and phone calls, the overwhelming majority of which, 90% by one councilman's estimate, were from people who they don't actually represent. Rumors spread of the amendment enabling sexual harassment in bathrooms, sexual predators in preschools and lawsuits bankrupting the city.
The September 1 City Council meeting, which went down as the longest and largest Goshen council meeting ever, was packed full of 700 people, quite a few police officers (there were rumors of Klan members attending) and a palpable, nervous tension.
Goshen faced a crisis of identity. Who are we as a community? Do we value all our neighbors or just certain ones? What do we say in the face of lies, rumors and insults thrown at our neighbors?
By law, anyone who wants to speak at a public meeting can speak. Thoughtfully, Mayor Allan Kauffman restricted each person to three minutes and allowed Goshen residents to speak first and then everyone else. The divide couldn't have been starker.
By my count, eighty-nine Goshen residents spoke, with fifty-five (60%) supporting the amendment. An 18-year-old transgender girl spoke about what it's like to live in Goshen and face constant discrimination (bringing tears to my eyes); parents and grandparents of LGBT children spoke about the pain they've experienced as their kids have sought more friendly environments elsewhere; social workers and retirees, pastors, high school and college students; so many people I had never known stood up for me and every LGBT person in Goshen and said we believe in equality and respect.
There were a lot of opponents to the amendment as well, especially from outside of Goshen: non-residents were 3 to 1 opposed. They accused me, if I take their words personally, of the following: being disgusting, shameful, vulgar and dirty; intrinsically evil; a sexual predator; going against nature; having a hidden agenda; having unsafe sex and even raping Goshen. The most difficult to sit still through were a woman who explained in great detail how anal sex leads to cancer and recurring talk of cross-dressing sexual harassment in public bathrooms.
Ultimately, Councilman Chic Lantz, co-sponsor of the amendment, bowed to the pressure, citing information provided to him by one of the lobbying groups, flipped his vote and killed the amendment. His final words before the vote: "It's for the kids."
Right after the vote, I felt an acute pain. Why would our representatives bow to pressure from people who didn't elect them, including lobbyists from as far away as Arizona, instead of listening to the painful, personal stories and overwhelming desire of Goshen residents for equality?
I remember walking out of the room and seeing the local politicians, lobbyists and opponents of the amendment shaking hands, congratulating each other and talking to TV reporters. Much to my surprise, at that moment, instead of anger I felt a sense of peace. We had done it. We spoke up when we were supposed to remain silent and accept discrimination and inequality. And Goshen stood with us, in the face of so much misunderstanding and said: we are a city that respects everyone.
We lost the vote, but won the respect we had asked for.
In the end, I asked the question I never wanted to ask: does this place I've chose to build my life and career actually respect me as a person? The unexpected, resounding answer was yes, absolutely. From The Goshen News' editorial page to a conservative Mennonite pastor to the police chief, board members I serve with, neighbors, friends of friends, people I've never met before -- since September I've heard over and over, thank you, for them, for their kids, for the city.
The answer to my reluctant question left me feeling, for the first time, truly at home, a sentiment echoed by many of my LGBT friends here.
For everyone in Goshen, no matter which side of the issue they were on, the process was a big wake-up call to get involved in local politics, to vote and to elect representatives who will decide issues for us and not outside forces. And if my premise holds true, that the 60% of Goshen residents who spoke in favor of the amendment are representative of the city as a whole, our next city election in 2011 will bring the change to city council that will enable us to amend our civil rights ordinance to protect everyone (for more on that effort, visit www.votegoshen.com).
Councilman Lantz was right. It's for the kids. All of them.