The Pride In Springfield, Pt. II.

Springfield’s LGBT community wants the protection of a nondiscrimination ordinance. If it passes, it’d be a historic moment in Springfield. But it’s a long road. More people want to have their say, to help define this moment. In the meantime, this often marginalized population is happy to have the city’s attention.

story by / photos by Sarah Elms
published August 27, 2012

Lori McGuire wants to make her viewpoint known: She’s pro-ordinance, always has been. It’s something many people might not have known — or expected, considering her age of 82 — before her tear-jerking speech in city council’s chambers two weeks ago, the first public hearing on an amendment to Springfield’s nondiscrimination ordinance that would add legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

She has personal ties to the issue. Two of her best friends are lesbians, as is her granddaughter, and all three have faced intense opposition to their sexual orientation. [1]

On Monday, Aug. 13, McGuire took her turn at the podium and gave a three-minute speech in support of the amendment. She caused a stir in the room. Her speech seemed to touch people on both sides of the issue.

Hours later, at about 11 p.m., she walked alone to her car, got in and drove toward her Springfield home. As she pulled away from the city council building, she noticed a car following her closely. “I got a little nervous because they were tailgating me,” she says. “Then they pulled into the left turn lane next to me and threw something out the window.” She heard a soft crunch against her car door. She had been egged.

McGuire calmly drove home and washed the egg residue off the door. She says the two men probably see her as their enemy, but she doesn’t feel that way.

“I’m not the enemy, I’m the opposition,” she says. “There’s a difference between being the enemy and being the opposition.”

She says a little mutual respect goes a long way, as does a little understanding. The instance was jolting, but to her, there are more important things to worry about — like the proposed amendment at hand. “What’s sorta nasty is they came prepared,” McGuire says. “If they were able to blow off some steam, then fine. An egg’s not going to kill me.”

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The crowd outside City Hall on Monday, Aug. 27.
(At top) Rebecca Stober, left, and Tamara Bellings hold signs of support at Monday’s city council meeting. (Above) The crowd outside City Hall.

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A tense, heated mixture of emotions was swirling around outside the city council meeting that night. McGuire shakes off the egging instance and chalks it up to emotions getting the best of people. She won’t pay it any more mind; she’s more interested in what’s going on inside the council chambers tonight, two weeks later, as the city council has three options on the table.

The three options are to:

1.) Send the proposed amendment to a task force for further review. This option, proposed by Councilman Tom Bieker, would bring together a group of community stakeholders with the intent of fostering additional community discussion on the issue.

2.) Add it to the November ballot for a public vote.

3.) Vote on the measure. If the previous two measures fail to pass through the council, the meeting will proceed as scheduled, along with the four hours of scheduled speakers.

They’re options that more than a few communities around the country have faced in their respective deliberations on the topic. As of March 29, 2012, according to The Human Rights Campaign, “at least 163 cities and counties prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment ordinances that governed all public and private employers in those jurisdictions.”

University City, just outside St. Louis, was the first in Missouri to pass an ordinance into law. It did so in 2005. Since, five other cities in Missouri have done so, including St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia.

With a few exceptions, the majority of these laws nationwide have come within the past decade or so. And in more than a few cases, those laws have run up against one obstacle or another.

There was the case of Gainesville, Fla., where a group of social conservatives stonewalled the ordinance by suggesting men might use it as a means of entering women’s locker rooms. A similar discussion came up in Anchorage. [2] There have been suggestions that an ordinance would be a burden on a business to educate the employees and would force them to adjust to something they don’t support. There’s the argument that the ordinance infringes upon religious freedom. These are arguments that tend to appear each and every time the matter is broached in communities across the nation.

They’re arguments that have been debunked in cities across the country — and yet are getting discussed here in Springfield with this new ordinance.

There is much discussion planned for tonight at City Hall. The people of Springfield — more than 500 of them, according to the city’s count — have come downtown to see what’s going to happen with this ordinance. They begin gathering in the council chambers more than three hours before the meeting.

The news that the proposed amendment has been tabled filters through the crowd to where the supporters stand holding signs that draw honks and yells from passing drivers. There’s a girl with a swipe of green in her black hair. Her name is Sabrina Pacella. Her nose wrinkles and her eyes squint behind thick black frames when she asks for clarification as to what “tabling” means.

“They’re going to do the task force? F—,” she says, eyes widening. “Nothing’s going to happen now. People are just going to forget about it.” Half joking and half serious, but entirely frustrated, Sabrina despairs and says that she’s just going to move back to California.

A friend of Sabrina’s identifies herself as Marcella. She has darker skin, red hair and sunglasses to shield the glare as the sun falls lower in the sky. Dressed in drag, she says, “Screw that, I want to stay here.” Because if there’s the opportunity to affect change, she goes onto say, what better place to do it? This is a place where change is necessary.

“But to see s— like this keep happening is so depressing,” Sabrina responds.

Dave Myers, a spokesperson for the conservative Live Free Springfield group, gets up on the steps of the city council and addresses the people gathered outside, the people wearing those round yellow stickers that declare opposition to the proposal. He’s taking it a step further, wearing a yellow polo shirt. He says the ordinance has been tabled, and “the issue will no longer be covered at the city council.”

He goes on to tell the onlookers it’s because of their involvement that the motion has been tabled. He points at the mass of people and exclaims, “You did this!” It’s met with applause toward the front of the crowd. From where Sabrina is at the back, just in front of the sidewalk that runs beside the road, among other supporters, there’s mostly quiet.

“I think they’re already involved enough,” Sabrina says.

The announcement that the issue is tabled prompts a mass exodus from inside, adding even more bodies to the already overflowing front lawn of city hall. Groups begin to move toward their cars. The excitement, for now, is over.

Stephanie Perkins, the deputy director of LGBT rights advocacy group PROMO, is down the sidewalk, just off the steps of City Hall. She’s just finished up a TV interview and doesn’t look nearly as crushed as the earlier cheers from the crowd adorned in yellow might lead you to believe.

“We’re a little bit discouraged just because there’s still going to be this time period where people are not protected,” she says. “But we’re really hopeful moving forward because we really trust that this task force will be made up of people who can represent their organizations and their communities as respectfully and as civilly as possible, and maybe we can come to some sort of an agreement about how to move forward in the best way possible.”

For Stephanie and many others in Springfield’s LGBT community, the fact that this city in southwest Missouri is talking about this nondiscrimination ordinance — that they’re even having a serious discussion about equal protection for sexual orientation and gender identity — qualifies as a milestone. True, their desired destination isn’t in sight. But they’ve shown up and spoken in public already. They’ve come this far. They don’t want to turn back now.

“This has been part of their life for their entire lives,” she says. “For many people who have lost their jobs and lost their homes and been denied access to services, this is a daily, daily problem. So, I think for many, many people, this is part of their life, and it will continue to be part of their life until this law is passed and they have some sort of recourse.”

Councilman Tom Bieker’s motion, which passed Monday night and ended council discussion of the issue for the moment, calls for a task force made up of community stakeholders that will allow open dialogue. Stephanie welcomes the formation of the task force.

In a way, it’s a blessing for the LGBT community. Had the city council voted for the ordinance, opposition groups are already mobilized enough to collect signatures to move the ordinance to the November ballot. Had the ordinance been put to a public vote — and with it being a Presidential election this November — the ordinance would likely have been defeated.

Instead, the task force could be a positive way forward. Stephanie hopes the task force will bring a diverse group of citizens together for a productive conversation and clarify bits of misinformation she says clouded the issue over the past few weeks. While there will likely be a “cooling down” period for the issue before the task force is formed, Stephanie is already encouraging people to keep sharing their stories in any way possible.

This isn’t the end, she insists.

“After the task force is over, we’re still going to potentially have another ordinance that the city council will potentially vote on, and we’re going to have public hearings again,” she says.

Springfield has made this issue a priority over the past few weeks. Right now, people are paying attention to a group that often feels vulnerable or marginalized. Stephanie believes that all of this will only further strengthen the LGBT community. Now that they’re in the public eye, they have the chance to get their voices heard.

“I hope they can see that there are people fighting for their rights and they should feel empowered to fight for their own rights, and that people are listening,” Stephanie says. “Our city is finally taking notice and finally making it a priority to fight for their rights and finally making a task force for the rights.”

Whatever happens next will be history for Springfield — and a starting point for other communities across America.

“This issue is very, very important to Springfield, just as it’s incredibly important to all cities across the country, all states across the country,” she says. “And this isn’t an issue that can be just brushed aside. This is an issue that affects people’s lives.

“This is not a stop sign.” reporters Jordan Hickey, Sarah Elms and Zach Crizer contributed to this story.