Letter from Fayetteville

Not hating the haters: The campaign for gay rights comes to Arkansas.


Rebecca Bryant
October 12, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Editor's Note: The death early Monday morning of a young gay man, Matthew Shepherd, from a vicious beating in Wyoming underscores the tragic toll homophobia and hate crimes continue to take across the United States. This November, there are initiatives on the ballot in various places that will affect the overall progress of gay rights in America. Today's Newsreal examines one of those initiatives.

After returning home to Fayetteville, Ark., this summer from Gay Games V in Amsterdam, I made my customary Saturday visit to the Farmer's Market. Dazed by the late-summer sun -- bright and hot compared to the diffuse sun of Amsterdam -- I ignored the gluttony of flowers that festoon our fair square and stumbled toward the outstretched tailgate of a farmer's pick-up. The tailgate was laden with the day's last overripe tomatoes, sun-spotted peppers and grande zucchini.

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I was mulling my choices when a man strode up, excited about the Campaign for Human Dignity's ballot initiative to extend Fayetteville's fair employment policy to homosexuals. My ears pricked to the conversation between activist and farmer. Before I left for Amsterdam, I had managed to ignore the whispers of my conscience: "Get involved, get involved." I'd watched the entire spectacle unfold from the sidelines.

It began in December 1996. Sixteen-year-old Willy Wagner was walking down the street on lunch break from Fayetteville High when a throng of teenage boys pummeled him with fists and the epithet "faggot." They picked the wrong person. Wagner's mother, Carolyn Wagner, was an activist waiting to happen. "I have no words to explain the anger that was and still is inside me," says Wagner. "I have always felt close to the Holy Mother. Now I understand what it's like to have a son treated like an outcast. I take time to reflect upon how Mary responded to the mistreatment of Jesus, and I try not to hate the haters. I have to work on it every day."

At first, she battled the local school board, but it took a threat from the U.S. Department of Education to wrest an amended sexual harassment policy from the addled board. When Wagner realized a token statement was as far as the board would go, she decided to take her cause to the City Council. She collected 160 non-discrimination ordinances and resolutions from other U.S. communities and went to see Councilman Randy Zurcher. In a community starved for, but not necessarily appreciative of, bold leaders, the fresh-faced 28-year-old Zurcher fills the gap. A graduate of nearby John Brown University, a bastion of Christian education, Zurcher knows his Bible. More importantly, he isn't afraid to stick his neck out, an unusual quality in our community, which like so many others suffers from what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the appalling silence of the good people."

Before meeting with Wagner, Zurcher had been drawing a line between Willy Wagner, the subsequent hate-murder of a local gay man, David Alan Walker, and the homosexuals among his own friends and family. Zurcher and Wagner formed an alliance, built coalitions and introduced the Human Dignity Resolution to the Fayetteville City Council on April 21, 1998. Going into the meeting, Zurcher had only two sure votes. Then the hate began. During the public comment period, "The people who got up to talk were open bigots." Zurcher frowns. "It was ugly." Later, several councilmembers confided to Zurcher that the hostility woke them up: The vote was 6-2 in favor. On April 26, Mayor Fred Hanna dusted off his rarely used "veto" stamp and whacked it against the resolution on the grounds that it was divisive.

On May 5, City Hall was again center stage. The stalwart six held flanks, overriding the mayor's, veto 6-2. Fayetteville inhaled for a collective sigh of relief, but before the community could exhale, an organization called Citizens Aware was organizing in several Baptist churches and collecting signatures to put the resolution on November's ballot. It quickly succeeded. Citizens Aware has no central office or phone number; its spokesman lives two cities away in Rogers. Printed campaign materials focus on "the homosexual agenda" in the same dark tones Sen. Joe McCarthy used against communism.

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That Saturday morning at the Farmer's Market, I struggled with an impulse to go home and shut my door. But I was still bedewed by an epiphany I'd experienced in Amsterdam Arena, where I sat on Aug. 1 among 45,000 global citizens gathered for the opening ceremony of the Gay Games. The ceremony had revealed a geographic breadth and historic depth to civilization's march toward tolerance that dwarfed America's ultra-right and its hostility toward different people and ideas. The clock on Old Main at the University of Arkansas chimed in the distance. I knew that turning my back on what was at stake in Fayetteville would be pure hypocrisy.

The next day I was sitting in one of a dozen metal folding chairs circled for the monthly meeting of PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Dan Hawes of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington put the local campaign in its national context: In June, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott had likened homosexuals to addicts and kleptomaniacs. In mid-July, the ultra-right bought full-page advertisements in the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today for a "Truth in Love" campaign overtly aimed at converting queers. In addition to Fayetteville, Nov. 3 features three other showdowns on gay civil rights. Fort Collins, Colo., faces a similar nondiscrimination vote. Alaskans will choose whether to outlaw gay marriage. In Hawaii, anticipating that the Hawaii Supreme Court may legitimize same-gender marriage, the ultra-right orchestrated a preemptive referendum that, if passed, will authorize the Legislature to ban the marriages.

Nov. 3 will resolve two things for Fayetteville: first, whether homosexuals get fair employment opportunities; second, whether the city actually is the progressive, university town it has built its reputation around. Several things make Fayetteville's vote worth watching. Fayetteville is a small town in a region nearly devoid of expansive civil rights legislation. The resolution originated from the "straight" community. This is the first time a chapter of PFLAG has championed a ballot issue. The two-sentence resolution focuses on one eloquent point: the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.

The outcome is hard to predict. Our Baptist contingent is huge, and they truly seem to believe that what Jesus would do today is condemn queers. On the other hand, a coalition of 10 non-fundamentalist religious leaders held a "love-thy-neighbor" press conference. Prominent queers and a swath of the good people have been silent. Fayetteville is skilled at using fear to keep people in line -- Councilman Cyrus Young's boss tried to strong-arm him into upholding Hanna's veto. One of the stalwart six, Young asserts, "If the resolution goes down the tubes, Fayetteville will stagnate. The University of Arkansas won't be able to recruit quality students and faculty." No high tech-firm, no major businesses, he adds, will want Fayetteville's stain to rub off on them.

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Another segment of Fayetteville is angry about the disturbance to the city's aura of tranquillity. At one point I, too, wondered if the fight was worth it. Such referendums raise a community's intelligence quotient about homosexuality but they can also increase hate crimes. But sometimes we overvalue tranquillity. King knew that. He argued that constructive, nonviolent tension is necessary for growth. Without it, he said, a society is unlikely to rise from the depths of prejudice and racism to the heights of brotherhood.

I helped move the Campaign for Human Dignity into an empty 18-by-18-foot office in late August. A month later, the accretion of office equipment, sodas, stacks of paper and boxes is astounding. It's a typical campaign with phone banking, door-to-door canvassing, plotting and strategizing. Carolyn Wagner is a blur of activity. She counsels suicidal teens, tries to ignore threats, weaves people together, consults with advisors. Mostly, she pleads for money. Dashing out the door to testify at a special hearing before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in Little Rock, Fayetteville's Patron Saint of the Dispossessed is emphatic: "Fayetteville is no way the end. Arkansas is my home state. I want a non-discrimination law on the books for the entire state."


Rebecca Bryant

Rebecca Bryant is a freelance writer.

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