The Odyssey youth center is hidden behind an unmarked door on an anonymous site near downtown Spokane. Nothing betrays its purpose to the outside world. Inside, gay teenagers lounge on sofas, shoot pool, flirt and surf the Internet. Here, behind closed doors in the heart of conservative, "redder than red" America, they feel safer when hidden. "One day I hope that our youth don't have to come here in secret through the back door," said Laurel Kelly, Odyssey's executive director.
In Spokane that day might be soon. Activists have embarked on a radical plan to create a gay business district in the heart of the city. It is a controversial idea in a region known mainly for political conservatism and the growing presence of evangelical Christians. But the idea's backers are determined. "Bring it on. Spokane won't change without confrontation," said Bonnie Aspen, a gay businesswoman and one of the scheme's architects.
Such an upfront move is part of a wider national response by gay groups in America in the wake of an election in which gay issues, such as same-sex marriage, came to the fore. In an effort to maximize turnout among conservative and evangelical voters, ballots on same-sex marriage were held in 11 states during last November's election. All voted against them.
Gay groups say they have been demonized by a Republican administration beholden to a powerful evangelical wing that believes homosexuality is a sin. But rather than battening down the hatches, they have decided to launch a fresh push on a broad front of issues. Last month 22 gay organizations for the first time signed a joint list of priorities ranging from gay marriage to jobs law and the rights of gays in the military. Opponents of gay rights have mobilized too. Strengthened by their new political power, a battery of conservative organizations is pushing forward. An additional 15 states are expected to have gay marriage ballots soon. Some conservative groups, such as Focus on the Family, meet weekly to plan strategy to fight a "homosexual agenda."
Since the election both sides have won victories. Conservatives have savored a Supreme Court decision that declined to hear a Florida case challenging a ban on gay adoption. Gay rights groups recently saw victories in California and Montana on same-sex-partner benefits rights.
The divisions of the "culture wars" are as wide as ever, and nowhere more than in towns like Spokane. The city of more than 200,000 people lies in the "blue state" of Washington, but that is skewed by heavy Democratic voting in Seattle. In fact, Spokane and the entire east of Washington state is part of a broad sweep of rural "red America" in the Northwest that includes Idaho and Montana and is a Republican stronghold. It is an area of rugged mountains and farms, famed for militia groups. The white power Aryan Nations group chose to make its headquarters just a few miles from Spokane, over the Idaho border.
The area has also seen an explosive growth in evangelical churches. Several large ministries have their headquarters in the region, and many condemn homosexuality as evil and against the Bible. For members of Spokane's gay community that atmosphere can be intimidating. "I walked right back into the closet when I came here," said Marvin Reguindin, a local graphic designer who is also organizing the gay business district plan.
The plan to create the district has sparked controversy even among gay groups. Critics have wondered at the possibility of creating a gay area from scratch when other famous gay districts -- such as Chelsea in New York and Castro in San Francisco -- have grown naturally.
But the main opposition comes from conservatives and evangelicals. One Spokane church leader, Walton Mize, bishop of the Christ Holy Sanctified Church, has warned of an "underbelly" of gay culture that will attract sexual predators and be a risk to children. Other evangelical groups have distributed antigay literature to city officials claiming that gays will bring disease and mental illnesses into Spokane. Penny Lancaster, leader of an influential body of evangelical groups called Community Impact Spokane, has said the city risks becoming a "gay Mecca."
So far city officials have maintained silence on the idea, which has come entirely from the private sector and does not involve any money from local authorities. But Spokane's gay groups are not backing down. "We need to be visible. It gives validation to who we are," said Reguindin. They are already deep in talks with several developers and have chosen their target area in the city. But they have not revealed its location, fearing opposition groups will buy property there to drive up prices and sink the project.
Being in small-town America is hard. Spokane was recently gripped by a furor after the local school board canceled a gay high school dance just 24 hours before it was due to start. Officials said the move was made because of "security concerns," though two police officers had been hired for the annual Valentine's Day event. They also said its 14-22 age range was against school policy, even though the dance had been held with those ages for the past two years. "It was just done because it was us gay kids," said Adam Cogswell, 21. "Everyone knows that."
Last week, in an impassioned meeting before the school board, members of Odyssey gave a searing account of how hard it was to be gay and go to school in Spokane. "A lot of these kids are walking through the halls in these schools fearing for their own safety," said a young girl called Danielle. Many gay teens wish to leave Spokane for big cities like Seattle, San Francisco or New York with long-established gay areas.
However, proponents of the gay district in Spokane hope it would change things as well as challenge antigay prejudice in conservative areas. Cogswell said: "We need to move all the gays to the middle of the country to show them we are people too."
The gay-district planners want their idea to act as a model to smaller towns. "If we can do it in Spokane, we can do it anywhere," Aspen said. But they admit that being openly gay in many parts of America is an exercise in fear. "We live in fear every day. That is part of being gay right now," said Reguindin.
There are also some victories. For 90 minutes school board members were lambasted by students, parents and teachers for canceling the gay dance. At the end a board spokeswoman apologized, admitting that the cancellation was an unfortunate mistake. "It will never happen again."