The Pride In Springfield, Pt. I.

The community of gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual citizens is a minority in Springfield. But these days, they’re very vocal. This month, they’re among those asking Springfield for protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But the road to legal protection hasn’t been easy.

story by Bari Bates / photos by Bari Bates and Sarah Elms
published August 27, 2012

The City Council meeting begins as they all do — with the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer. This evening, Councilman Jerry Compton asks for grace in listening and clarity of speech, then adds a comment that sets the tone for the evening:

“History will judge the outcome of this issue.”

Council meetings rarely see such turnouts. The main chamber reaches capacity more than an hour before the meeting even begins. People are herded into hallways, side rooms and the lobby. If they signed up to speak, they wait their turn. They’ll be waiting for a while, as 77 people have something to say. Even with the building filled to capacity, nearly 200 people are left outside.

There are a shocking number of people at City Hall on this night. Springfield’s come out because because of an ordinance sitting before the City Council — an ordinance that, depending on your viewpoint, either represents a small step towards equality for all or a major violation of the community’s unwritten ethical rules.

Current law in the city prohibits discrimination based on factors like age or disability. Locals can take legal action against anyone who denies them housing, jobs or services based on a single aspect of their identity. But sexual orientation or gender identity isn’t among the protected categories.

This ordinance would add that to the law, protecting members of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community — and more importantly, recognizing that community’s rights.

But here in the Bible Belt, where same-sex marriage has found significant opposition, such an ordinance won’t be voted into law without a fight.

Here, and throughout the night, there’s a lot of mention of history — of how history will look back on these proceedings, of whether, perhaps, more tolerant generations will wonder what took so long. Minority ethnic groups have long since received their due protection. Women can vote and own property. Small victories are happening every month for minority groups, it seems.

For the LGBT community in the Ozarks, this is merely a step towards acceptance. This community isn’t very visible in Springfield. Over the years, they’ve often been shouted down by messages of hate.

But on this night, the matter at stake is one of civil rights. Tonight, they stand up — publicly, many for the first time — for themselves.

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A sampling of the signs in protest and support of the amendment, seen outside of city hall the night of the first public hearing.
(Above) Signs in protest and support of the amendment, seen outside of city hall the night of the first public hearing. (At top) A group of Springfieldians show their support for the amendment.

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As the public hearing begins, people make their way to the podium as their names are called. Most take calm, measured steps and politely smile at the mayor and eight city council members in front of them.

There are two women seated just to the left of the podium. One wears a bright blue bow tie with her dark hair cropped short and bangs swept just above her glasses. She is very much on the forefront when it comes to LGBT [1] rights in Springfield. For the past few years, getting this issue heard in this very public forum has been her personal mission. Her name is Stephanie Perkins, deputy director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization, and next to her is her partner, Amanda Long. They’re here in support of the ordinance.

It’s true that this is not the biggest issue that their community — the LGBT community — is currently facing. They’d like for this non-discrimination ordinance to be statewide. They’d like to be able to walk down the street hand-in-hand and not feel the heat of stares wash over them. They’d like for gay marriage to exist in Missouri and for it to exist in Springfield — Stephanie and Amanda would like to be married, and they will be in Iowa next year. They’d like so many things, but ultimately they’d like to be considered equal. This ordinance doesn’t do all of that, but it’s a start.

So when her name is called, Stephanie goes to the microphone and starts with statistics. She tells the council that 42 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents to a Williams Institute survey said they experienced employment discrimination, making an ordinance like this particularly meaningful. More than that, Stephanie talks about the cities that already have ordinances like this in place.

Nationally, there are more than 160 cities or counties that have passed such an ordinance. Nine municipalities in Missouri have already done so. Stephanie assures the council that those cities have learned how to adapt to such an ordinance. If they can do it, so can Springfield.

“All of them have figured out the procedures to make it possible,” she says. “All of them have figured out the procedures to make it successful. And in all of those cities, the sky has not fallen.”

The ordinance allows everyone a fair shot, she says. A fair shot to be a productive citizen, a fair shot at housing, a fair shot at employment. Though she is reading from a card, her words are not without emotion. She is finally in front of city council, after months and months of preparation and discussion.

Stephanie is fairly certain that the ordinance will pass. She can go through the numbers and tell you she’s very confident she has the necessary five votes for a majority, pretty certain that she has six, feels maybe OK about seven, and knows that eight votes in favor of the ordinance won’t happen. This wouldn’t come to a vote in city council if Stephanie didn’t think that the votes were there.

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Stephanie Perkins, deputy director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization, has been at the forefront of the push to include sexual orientation and gender identity in Springfield’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
Stephanie Perkins, deputy director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization, has been at the forefront of the push to include sexual orientation and gender identity in Springfield’s nondiscrimination ordinance.

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Stephanie is standing in the middle of the GLO Center [2] at a Tuesday night GALAGXY [3] meeting — a program that provides a safe space for more than 20 LGBT youths, ages 13 to 21. They’ve covered their topics for the night and moved on to general announcements. It’s a few weeks before the Aug. 13 council meeting. This week, Stephanie has “super-duper exciting news.” She talks with her hands, making big sweeping gestures as she closes the laptop in front of her. She’s excited. There’s going to be an ordinance coming before council, she says.

“If you’re fired or not hired based on your orientation or gender identity,” she says, “or you’re evicted or not given access to housing, or if you’re kicked out of your hotel or coffee shop or city bus or something based on someone thinking you’re gay or trans, you can actually file a complaint with the commission, and they’ll do an investigation.”

To the people in the room, this is an exciting moment. If the ordinance passes, it’d be a small gesture from the city towards recognizing the rights of the LGBT community.

This is the thing that Stephanie has been working toward ever since she first started meeting with the council all of two-and-a-half years ago, when she sat down with Councilman Doug Burlison and started explaining why this was important. In a sense, she’s following a recipe — a well-tried and widely employed means of gaining support. It involves meeting with the council members behind closed doors, explaining exactly what something like this would achieve, so that they’re able to explain it when the time comes for public hearings.

Then come the actual meetings, and the final decision from council.

Unless the council decides to put the ordinance to a public vote. If it goes to a vote, the LGBT community knows that they will lose, and decisively.

They hope it does not come to a public vote.

Stephanie knows from watching other Missouri communities pass similar ordinances which issues and questions might crop up in Springfield. She is ready with answers.

There’s the issue of religious freedom. Some churches say that the law would require them to hire LGBT workers — even though the ordinance explicitly says otherwise. There’s the issue of how a transgender employee might be a burden on a business because of all that would fall on the owner or manager in terms of figuring out the paperwork and name changes, educating other employees and holding sensitivity training sessions.

And then there’s this last thing.

It’s a scare tactic of sorts, Stephanie says, and she’s seen it pop up in other towns. There’s this fear that when you pass gender identity laws, it opens a loophole — that now men will be able to put on a woman’s dress and go into a bathroom and molest little girls, or men will be able to put on a woman’s dress and hang out in a women’s locker room. But she says the truth is that there really aren’t any documented cases of that happening. This ordinance is not something that changes a criminal code or anything like that — it just allows people to use the appropriate bathrooms.

But this evening at the GLO Center, she’s not saying any of this. All she tells the young crowd is that this ordinance is coming up, and that if they can come — even if they don’t want to take the microphone, even if they can only come for one of the two nights scheduled for public hearings — and show solidarity, it would be really great.

She knows what might happen when the council meets to hear opinions on the ordinance. There will be opposition to the ordinance.

“There will be people there who will say awful, awful things and you just have to remember that those are the people who … don’t know you,” she says to the young members of Springfield’s LGBT community. “And there will be people there who will say awesome things. Listen to those people. They’re educated. They know what they’re talking about.

“But again: Celebrate. This is awesome. This has never happened in Springfield before — this is a very, very cool thing. And if it doesn’t pass this time, then … we have time on our side. And it will only get better.”

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It’s the night of the council meeting. A man comes up to the podium, voicing his disagreement with the ordinance. He fears that it would force Christian business owners to unfairly hire gays out of fear of litigation. Here, an argument surfaces that will be repeated several times during the next few hours: Christian businesses shouldn’t be forced to hire people whose lifestyles they don’t agree with — and here, the language varies greatly. Some use the term sinful, or sodomy, while others state a polite disagreement with what they view as an individual choice. Many at the meeting say this ordinance would infringe on their rights as business owners. In the background, Amanda can be seen shaking her head. Stephanie, who records several people speaking in opposition to the ordinance, is far less emotive, though at times you can see her biting the inside of her cheek.

Amanda admits that she wears her heart on her sleeve. She couldn’t do what Stephanie does for a living, she says. She doesn’t think that she could put herself in a position to hear so much hate. She says she thinks she would just cry all the time. But Stephanie hears this a lot, terms like the “gay agenda,” which are thrown around and up and down in efforts to warn the Christian public of the gay community’s “militant” uprising.

There’s a distinct sense of fear among those who are against the ordinance. Several people warn that there’s a possibility of extreme violence if this ordinance were to pass, citing the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., as an example of what would come.

But later, a schoolteacher — one with 32 years of classroom experience — steps to the podium. Her fear is a different one. She tells city council that she taught students who were the recipients of some of the same kinds of hurtful things heard throughout the night here. And she’s afraid they are going to give up on Springfield.

“You have a room full of brave young people here tonight,” she says, “who are willing to put themselves in front of that kind of meanness in order to stand up for who we should be as a community.”

These people — the LGBT community — are leaving Springfield, she tells them. “They are talented, many of them. They are very bright, many of them. They are creative. They have a great deal to offer our community. And if we don’t stand up for them, they will leave and they will take those talents and they’ll go someplace else, and Springfield will be a much less rich place for the rest of us to live if they go.”

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And then there’s yet another type of fear in the room, one that each member of the LGBT community deals with on a daily basis. When Amanda’s name is called, she moves past Stephanie to reach the aisle to get to the podium. She speaks briefly — hardly 50 seconds — and tells city council that she’s still afraid to have Stephanie, her partner and the woman who she soon plans to marry, bring her lunch at work.

When Amanda is finished speaking, she sits back down, momentarily half-embracing Stephanie, or at least as much as possible when sitting side-by-side on a hard wooden bench. She runs her fingers through the back of Stephanie’s short hair, before settling back in her seat, with her arms crossed on her chest, as if preparing to physically shield herself from the words coming from opponents of the ordinance.

Another supporter says that he’s speaking on behalf of his friend, who was fired from her job because she was a lesbian. She was afraid to speak tonight, and asked that he use a fake name for her. He calls her Stacy. Even with all of the support being voiced for the ordinance tonight, it’s impossible not to wonder how many have refrained from speaking publicly out of fear that they could be fired or evicted on the basis of identifying as lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual, with no formal way to contest it.

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Inside the GLO Center, a home away from home for many of Springfield’s LGBT community
Inside the GLO Center, a home away from home for many of Springfield’s LGBT community.

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A man named Charles Abernathy is called to the podium. He’s a full-time student who works 40 hours a week and volunteers “like it’s a part-time job.” He also happens to be gay. He has just as much control over how old he is and the color of his skin as he does his sexuality, he tells city council.

“How can someone’s existence infringe on someone’s civil liberties?” he asks the opponents of the ordinance. “The [underlying] issue here is that the opponents do not want to recognize the existence of LGBT individuals who are contributing to our community because that would give value to our existence and that value would give us worth, that worth would give us the right to work without fear, to live in our homes without fear, and to have access to a public accommodation without fear.”

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Charles is one of the many volunteers who work at the GLO Center, which is the hub of the gay community in Springfield. The facility has been around since 1997. Charles is a facilitator with the GALAGXY program at the GLO Center. The 20 or so youths in the program come to the center just to hang out. To talk about everything that young adults talk about. Things like dating. School. Food. Sex. Suicide.

The kind of stuff, they’ll all note, most kids talk about.

Each day starts at three in the afternoon, dinner’s at six, with a meeting thrown in somewhere between the two. Meetings start with standard-enough introductions, led by two co-leaders of the group who nod in recognition to familiar faces, welcoming new ones. When the new faces show up, Jim House is the one who greets them at the door, introduces them to other youth in Springfield like them, shows them they aren’t alone.

Jim House is an institution here. He’s been here since the beginning of the center. He remembers how it used to be in Springfield. He’s been here since 1959. He went to Drury University and decided to make this place his home. He didn’t come out until he was 35.

“I mean, you know, a lot of times people my age, you thought you were the only person like you. You know?” Jim says. “The only other people you knew were gay dressed like women, or were real feminine. And that wasn’t me, so I thought that there wasn’t anyone else like me. And then you find out, well, there are a lot of them.

“It’s totally different now than it was even 15 years ago — the kids have a lot more support than they used to have. You know, in school, their parents… a lot of it’s changed. And the news. You watch the news, and people are getting married in New York, and for God’s sake, Iowa. You know? And it’s just like, that was unheard of. I really never thought I’d see the day when gay marriage would be legal. I just never thought … I thought I wouldn’t live that long. And now I think I probably will.”

Some of the young members of the GLO Center are lucky, and have supportive parents and attend schools where they can be out. Others are less so, and have been kicked out of their homes, or left school, and have come here needing help finding emergency housing. The Center is not able to house anyone in here, but they can point kids in the right direction — and the word “kid” here does nothing to describe the maturity and bravery it has taken them to come out and be part of the community at such a young age.

There are a handful of facilitators to guide the programs each week, and to guide the organized chaos of youth meetings. All of the facilitators are here for their own reasons, but they hold the common belief that they’re able to give back to the LGBT community, and offer something that maybe they didn’t have growing up.

There was even a reunion last October — Jim invited people back through the group’s Facebook page — to see how the center’s grown through the years.

“That’s when you really get to see, you know, that I’ve done some good,” Jim says. “And they come back and they tell you, ‘I never told you, but you really made a big difference in my life.’ And that always floors me, because you don’t think you did, but then you really did, and they’ll say, ‘Do you remember that time…’ and of course it’s something minor that I probably sat down and talked to them about.

“It’s really interesting to see how they’ve come along and what they’ve done. And I think this place really had a lot to do with what they’ve done and building up their confidence and feeling comfortable with themselves.”

The city has grown up, too. In June, the LGBT community held its annual Pride Day, right out on the square in downtown Springfield. They held a parade and a drag show, and hundreds of members of the community came out to participate.

Around the square, many looked on — but hardly anyone came to protest the festivities.

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Pride celebrations on the Square in June.
Pride celebrations on the Square in June.

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There are visible deep breaths in the front row, as if to calm racing hearts, beating and swelling when members of their own community give voice to the thoughts and feelings they might not have found the words for yet. Charles is one of those voices tonight. He reminds council that its choice is whether an inherent quality should be the basis for discrimination.

“I’m a human being,” another ordinance supporter explains. As a lesbian, she’d rather not rely on an ordinance to protect her. She’d rather that she wasn’t part of a protected class, as she says it makes her feel like an endangered species.

“I think that bears repeating: I’m a human being.”

Such explanations fall on deaf ears among some in the crowd. One many questions whether enough studies have been done in Springfield to elicit an ordinance. Another man compares the condoning of homosexuality to condoning the use of crack. One woman speaks of case studies done on twins, in order to prove that there’s no genetic basis for homosexuality.

The council continues steadily through the never-ending list of speakers. Though they’re already several hours into the meeting, no one seems terribly fatigued.

Toward the end of the evening, a petite older woman with white hair approaches the podium. She doesn’t wear any stickers on her blouse, and perhaps because of her age, it’s almost expected that the words to come out of her mouth will reiterate the message so many have shared today: Love the sinner, hate the sin. She adjusts the microphone, bringing it down to her height at the podium, and begins to read off the sheet of paper she has in her hands. Behind her, you can nearly see LGBT supporters begin to tune the woman out, even before a word is spoken.

Her name is Lori McGuire. She looks across the row of city council members, and asks them to imagine being called an abomination based on the color of their eyes. Stephanie leans forward in her seat, and rests her elbows on her knees to listen closely.

Lori’s granddaughter is a lesbian, and she believes in justice. She emphasizes her words and raises her voice, punctuating each word with a head nod. “Sexual. Preference. Is. Not. A. Choice.”

She has along a copy of the speech she gave at her granddaughter’s wedding, and she reads it aloud:

“Sure, some of the people you love will not understand. Some still have dreams for you that you can’t fulfill because they don’t fit who you are. Yet, is it fair to expect them, parents and other family members and old friends, to change something they were raised with and deeply believe in? What to do? I would suggest the answer is simply to understand them and accept them as you long for them to accept you and to never stop loving them. If we could only live by the golden rule, life here on earth could be far closer to paradise. It sounds too simple, yet it’s so incredibly demanding. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Demanding, you bet, because it demands true empathy. Putting yourself in their shoes even when it feels like their shoes are killing you. The hardest part is doing it quietly within yourselves and without withholding your love.”

And here, for the first time, Lori’s voice cracks, but she pushes on. Behind her, Stephanie wipes a tear from her eye, adjusting her glasses. Her bottom lip trembles, and crinkles with the effort of holding back more tears. She leans back in her chair, toward Amanda. This part of the woman’s address is far less for city council than it is for the benefit of those sitting behind her.

“Then sometimes magic happens. Folks who feel loved and accepted just as they are sometimes return the favor,” Lori says. She says that she and her husband have been married for 54 years, and that they’ve made it work, despite some disagreements. It keeps things interesting, she says.

She thanks city council, and walks away from the podium. After each speaker, Mayor Bob Stephens has been asking if there are any questions, and the answer is usually no. But here, Councilman Jeff Seifried asks what the secret is to not arguing after 54 years of marriage. Lori turns back toward the council and throws a hand at them, as if wiping away the question.

“We’re just nuts about each other,” is her answer. There’s laughter throughout the chamber, and the mood breaks, if only for a moment.

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Eventually the meeting comes to a close. The much-reduced crowd [4] starts to filter out down the stairs to the lobby and out the doors. Outside, it’s been dark for quite a while already. The television stations have filed their reports and packed up their equipment. Just beyond the stone steps leading down from the doors of city hall, there’s a minor clash between two groups of people — those in support and those opposed. When Stephanie and some friends walk down the steps, they immediately move off to the side to wait for the last of the people still inside.

They already know that they’ll have to come back two weeks later — on Aug. 27 — and they know that they’ll hear more of the same that night. They know there will be efforts to push the ordinance to a public vote, and they know what the outcome of a public vote would be.

If it does not go to a vote — if council decides to vote on the matter itself — the ordinance could be decided then.

They know that this is only one step. But they’ll keep trying to take this step, and then the next. This is their home. They have jobs here. They have families here. They have lives here. They like Springfield. They’re proud of Springfield.

They say they just want Springfield to be proud of them.

This story continues with Part II, a Stry.us report from the Aug. 27 council meeting.