I wrote this piece in 1998, during the attempt to pass the Human Dignity Resolution, which would have protected the rights of gay employees who work for the city of Fayetteville. It was during this heated battle that serious cracks began to appear in what people liked to call “the Athens of the Ozarks,” and folks began to realize that perhaps Fayetteville may not have been the bastion of liberality it long supposed itself to be.
Though the attempt was ultimately a failure, it was a glorious fight. It brought out both the best and the worst in people, as such battles are wont to do. And as usual, folks who are filled to the rim with bigotry rarely, if ever, recognize that malady within themselves.
This is included in my book, Ozark Mosaic.
Council to Attempt Veto Override
"Fayetteville crosses the Rubicon
What should have been a fairly innocuous vote at the April 21 meeting of the Fayetteville City Council instead turned into one of the most argumentative evenings the people of this community had seen for some years. The seed for the contention was in the “Human Dignity Resolution,” put forth by Alderman Randy Zurcher. Starting out with, “The City of Fayetteville wishes to promote a prevailing climate of fairness, justice and the inherent worth and dignity of all persons,” it seemed the sort of thing that a community Utne Reader had praised as being one of the most “progressive” in Arkansas would embrace.
But the clause stating, “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 room was filled to capacity with those both in support of and against the resolution.
During the debate, which raged for almost two hours, much of the discussion was about things not dealt with in the resolution. The charge was made repeatedly that by voting for the resolution, the city would be “promoting” homosexuality.
Taking a great deal of personal abuse, Zurcher is surprised that his resolution would inspire so much anger and fear. He says that during the recent Springfest celebration, many people came up to him and expressed thanks for his efforts. He says, “I think much of this is people reading more into this than is really there. I didn’t intend to stir up this much controversy or divisiveness, but I think it is unavoidable.
“Sometimes, with progress, when you deal with any kind of discrimination, you are going to have a fight on your hands.”
Within a week after the council passed the resolution with a 6-2 vote, Mayor Fred Hanna vetoed the resolution after he had been presented with the names of over 500 people (mainly from University Baptist Church) who opposed it. Saying that the measure was “divisive,” Hanna also expressed concern that the city might be open to legal action, should the resolution stand. This is the third time since 1993 that Hanna has used his veto power.
Ironically, Washington County passed very much the same proposal almost ten years ago. No lawsuits have come about as a result of that.
The next day, the city council agreed with Hanna that there would be no public debate allowed at the May 5 meeting of the council, at which an attempt would be made to override the veto. Zurcher, who was personally criticized by several in opposition to the resolution, was at first loathe to repeat the experience.
However, in a letter he has since sent to the mayor and his fellow aldermen, Zurcher wrote, “This issue is obviously one that the community at large is very concerned about, and one they are interested in commenting on . . . As we have more and more diverse people moving to the city, we will at times have clashes of opinion on the right way for for the city to act. These times are occasions when the leadership of the city needs to encourage public comment, not to quash it and try to make it go away, even if some opinions or ways of speaking make us feel uncomfortable.” He urged the council to permit public comment, but that all speakers be required to limit their comments to the specific issue, not to exceed two minutes.
May 5, both sides of the issue will be represented at the Fayetteville City Council meeting. Carolyn Wagner of PFLAG has been placing petitions at various businesses so that people can pick them up and pass them around prior to the meeting. At this writing, almost 1000 people have signed in support.
.Zurcher says that he proposed the resolution initially because so many people had shared stories of how they had experienced discrimination, though he added that none of the stories had to deal with anyone employed by the city.
In the all-too-recent past, Fayetteville has seen a young gay man beaten up, children of lesbians beaten, and the murder of a young gay man.
Zurcher says that this was meant to be a city-wide “healing process, but unfortunately what we are getting is the opposite.”
Fayetteville finds itself (again) at a crossroads, a social Rubicon. The terrible anger and fear expressed at the April 21 city council meeting have made so many in this “progressive” community nervous.
As one gay woman said to Zurcher this week, “I feel like a large target has been painted on my back.”
Ozark Gazette - May 4, 1998