We've always thought of ourselves as being a "progressive" community here in the New York City of the Ozarks, though we don't actually put it to he test very often. It is true that we have long had a commitment to the environment that other cities are now only beginning to emulate, and god knows no other city in Northwest Arkansas would dare have a channel in which citizens can make their own programs and critique their city government if they wish to.
We have volunteer citizen committees, we have a devotion to the arts, and we even have a Gay Pride day Parade - try having that anywhere else in Northwest Arkansas.
And yet we still just sort of dance around the edges of true liberalism. We haven't really put ourselves to the test since 1998, when the battle over the Human Dignity Resolution raged in Fayetteville.
Brought forward by Alderman Randy Zurcher, it would have protected the jobs of gay and lesbian city employees. From the panicked and hateful responses it brought forward from many of its opponents, one would have thought that Zurcher proposed that every other family in town had to marry off their son or daughter to a gay individual.
The clause stating that " . . . the city shall therefore continue to ensure that all qualified applicants for all city positions have equal access to such employment opportunities regardless of race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, ancestry, familial status, sexual orientation or disability" was like a red flag to a bull. The council meetings concerned with the resolution were standing room only - and beyond - affairs.
The meetings became exercises in low comedy.
"Are you a Christian, Mr. Zurcher? " demanded an opponent at one meeting. It rarely rose above that level. Some tried to couch the issue in strictly business terms - after all, we do live in one of those exalted Right to Work (Right to Starve) states, and government should never tell a business who they should hire and fire, ran their argument.
Others were afraid that the resolution, if passed, would extend to any and all entities which conducted any business with the city.
The city council passed the resolution, thus assuring us all that we were, after all, a truly progressive community. The mayor, Fred Hanna, who could never be accused of being progressive, promptly vetoed the motion after a petition of 500 names (mostly from University Baptist Church) was presented to him. He claimed that the city could be open to lawsuits if this "divisive" resolution was allowed to stand.
Ironically, the Washington County Quorum Court - more on them in a moment - had passed very much the same proposal almost ten years before, and no lawsuits had come about as a result of that.
After the council overrode Hanna's veto, there were groups determined to put it before the voters that November. It was hard-fought campaign, with opponents of the resolution engaging in a great deal of misinformation in their attempts to sway voters.
TV commercials with local celebrities ran, talking about "special rights" for homosexuals. Carolyn Long-Brewer, a popular figure who once worked as a newscaster for Channel 29, appeared in a commercial is which she said, " Resolution 51-98 would tear down the tolerant climate that makes living in Fayetteville so enjoyable."
She went on to utter the mantra beloved by so many:
"I believe in Equal Rights, not Special Rights."
And, of course, there were dark mutterings about the "secret agenda" of the gay community. One opposing ad said simply:
"Keep Your Dignity - Vote Against Resolution 51-98." There was no attempt made to explain the statement.
Writers to newspaper opinion columns and public access producers were busy for months chronicling the issue.
An issue like this is sort of where the rubber meets the road for a city that prides itself on how progressive it is. But when it came down to it, on that dark, cold November night in 1998, the forces of ignorance and bigotry were the ones doing the victory dance.
We haven't put ourselves to the test in 12 years.
I'm sorry, but a parade down Dickson Street doesn't go far enough. It's time to take the bull by the horns again, and at least try again - try something.
Eureka Springs - for reasons that had as much to do with tourist dollars as it did with human rights - said, "Let's offer domestic partnerships." A lunatic DVD called They're Coming to Your Town (put out by a right-wing hate group) listed Fayetteville as a potential target for domestic partnership supporters, but no one who ever watched the DVD ever took it seriously.
It was like the 1998 debacle took something from us. Sure, we kick every other city's ass where it comes to being ahead of the intellectual curve, and trying out new ideas, but those ideas are tame compared to something that challenges the very fabric of our society.
Bigotry and discrimination (race/class/sexual) is the Lex Luthor of our time. I mean, what good is putting on the Superman suit if all you take on are the equivalent of shoplifters, Fayetteville? It's time for something big again - something that challenges our souls and our political courage.
Something that reminds people of why they would rather live in Fayetteville than any other city in Northwest Arkansas.
The night the lights went out in Washington County
In July of 1998, at the height of the Human Dignity Resolution battle, after some of the court became aware that the county had adopted similar legislation a decade before, they resolved to officially withdraw said protection for gay employees.
After a meeting that lasted several hours, and some of the most ignorant comments - by both private citizens and public officials - heard in a long time went out over the airwaves, the court proudly voted to deprive gay county employees of their job protections.
To say that it was despicable would be the understatement of the - well, the 20th Century.
Let freedom ring!
Quote of the Day
The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons. - Ralph Waldo Emerson