1998 saw the most divisive political and social battle that Fayetteville had seen for many years, eclipsing even the Access War and the legal battles over the proposed incinerator. The Human Dignity Resolution, brought up by Alderman Randy Zurcher, would have put Fayetteville firmly on the map as one of the most progressive communities in the country. The night that it was voted down by the public was a bitter pill to swallow for many. So bitter, in fact, that they could never bring themselves to describe Fayetteville as “The Athens of the Ozarks” ever again.
And yet one has to ask, isn’t it time to try something bold again?
This is included in my book, Ozark Mosaic.
The Merchants of Fear
Human Dignity Opponents Engaging in Misinformation
In an atmosphere of fear and misinformation, the Campaign for Human Dignity is facing an increasingly difficult public relations battle as the November 3 election day nears. The battle seems to be largely between those who actually read and understand the Resolution, and those reading their own interpretations into the Resolution. The Resolution states, “The City of Fayetteville shall model for the community and encourage all other institution, organizations and businesses in the City to conduct their institutional behavior in a manner that promotes the values represented by the spirit of the resolution. The City shall therefore continue to insure that all qualified applicants for all City positions have equal access to such employment opportunities regardless of race, sex, national origin, age, ancestry, familial status, sexual orientation or disability.”
And while this certainly seems straightforward, so much has been made of the so-called “special rights” that homosexuals supposedly want, or a so-called “gay agenda.” To believe that this particular resolution promotes either concept is skating over a very thin veneer of rationality and logic.
Yet so little of the opposition actually deals with the Human Dignity Resolution, but instead promotes a fear that somehow the city of Fayetteville, emboldened by a possible victory on November 3, might “force” private businesses, churches and organizations to adhere to the resolution. The driving force behind that line of reasoning is a distortion of the word “encourage,” which some in opposition seem to feel means to “mandate.” The fact, however, is that the Resolution only deals with city of Fayetteville employees.
To repeat: the Resolution covers only those who work for the city, and not others who work in the city.
The Big Lie - 1998
Much of the arguments and myth spreading seem to arise from primal fears of the unknown, and not the actual Resolution.
Anne Shelley, of the Campaign for Human Dignity, laughs when asked about a possible “secret agenda.” She says, “If there is, no one has told me about it. To me, from the beginning, and for all of us who work on the campaign, it is an agenda of fairness.” She adds that the wording of the Resolution works very well as a statement of fact of what it really is. She points out that all of the hostile language and charges have come from the opposition, and not from those in favor of it. “That’s a game we don’t want to play,” she says.
An ad paid for by Citizen’s Aware, which opposes the Resolution, declares that “over 3,000 people” signed the petition to put the Human Dignity Resolution on the ballot, after the Fayetteville City Council passed the Resolution a second time over Mayor Fred Hanna's veto. According to Fayetteville City Clerk Heather Woodruff, the actual number of signatures turned was 2198.
Yet another Citizens's Aware ad declares, “Keep Your Dignity - Vote Against Resolution 51-98.” There is no attempt made to explain the comment.
Carolyn Long-Brewer, a popular figure who once worked a newscaster for Channel 29, has cut a commercial in which she states that, “Resolution 51-98 would tear down the tolerant climate that makes living in Fayetteville so enjoyable.” She goes on to echo the phrase uttered by so many, “I believe in Equal Rights not Special Privileges based on sexual preference.”
As far as the concept of “Special Rights” is concerned, Shelley responds, “There is nothing special about being fair.” She feels that trumpeting the spectre of special privileges is one way in which fear can be promoted. “People who are not familiar with this issue are going to hear that, and it will trigger that basic thing in them that someone is being treated better than they are, or that someone is getting more than they are.”
How can the Campaign respond to ads which do not seem based on any sort of reality? Shelley says, “All we can do is keep honest and fair and straightforward with the material that we put out.”
Shelley emphasizes that voters should actually read the Human Dignity Resolution before voting on it.
Many support Resolution
While a number of organizations and news organizations have endorsed the Human Dignity Resolution several Fayetteville City Council candidates and the Chamber of Commerce have opposed the Resolution. The logic of their argument - which can be described as both comic and stupefyingly uninformed - is that federal law already protects employees. The fact is that there is no job protection for gay employees. In a majority of states, if an employer takes offense at an employee’s sexual orientation, nothing whatsoever can protect that employee from termination.
Bigotry against those who are gay is evident in some of the rhetoric, revolving around pseudo-science, such as whether homosexuals can be “cured.” In this way, the matter of men and women who are gay due to natural inclinations can be avoided. Why, after all, should legal protection be extended to those who “Choose” to be gay? But by choosing that slippery slope, the discussion veers off strictly legal grounds and into religious doctrine.
No jobs for “perverts”
And then, of course, there is hate mail. Perhaps the letter recently received from a Fayetteville resident just serves to confirm why the effort of reaching out to others is so important. The letter reads:
You bunch of Faggot lovers probably want more drug dealers on the city council - that’s fair, too.
Most of us are just trying to live and let live . . . we don’t care about your penchant(s).
You are just trying to get your agenda legalized.
In other words, I don’t want perverts running my city or employed.
They should be run out of town.
There ain’t nothing fair about a convicted child molester being employed as a grade school mentor. But, you say it is.
There, you had your say.
When the votes are in, you will be voted out.
Take me off your mailing list. We do not want your literature spoiling our mailbox.
The vehemence of the opposition does not surprise Shelley, though it does dishearten her. “I can hardly express how if feels to know you are doing the right thing, and have taken pains to run a clean and fairminded campaign, and to have this kind of stuff coming at us, that is so full of lies and misinformation.” Misinformation usually works, as Shelley well knows, because it plays to people's fears.
She does hope that Citizens's Aware ads speak mainly to the converted, and so preaching largely to those who already believe as they do.
Anne Shelley says that those who work on the Campaign for Human Dignity are a very diverse group of people. In fact, she says that most of those working on this supposedly “gay” issue are heterosexual; “It just goes back to the fact that it feels right to all of us to work for fairness and securing basic rights in employment.”
No matter what the results of Election Day, Shelley says that the emphasis of herself and others at the Campaign for Human Dignity is a commitment to healing and building bridges in the community. Whatever transpires, it is clear that Fayetteville is facing a major fork in the road.
“The South doesn't have a very good record when it comes to discrimination, and I think people from all over are looking to Fayetteville to do the right thing, and I hope that on November 4, we can say, ‘This is the New South,’ where we say that discrimination is wrong.”
Come November 4, we'll all know.
Ozark Gazette - November 2, 1998