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Emotions Rule Irvine Battle on Gay Rights : Ballot Hyperbole Isn’t Confined to Either Side

Times Staff Writer

To hear Judy Daniels tell it, the anti-gay rights initiative on Irvine’s Nov. 7 ballot smacks of the Nazi persecution of minorities that she used to hear about from her mother, a Holocaust survivor.

“This is all too familiar to me,” Daniels said this weekend as she stopped at an anti-Measure N booth at the Woodbridge Shopping Center to sign a statement of opposition. In Germany, “first it was the Jews, then the homosexuals, and now it is happening to a lesser extent in Irvine. . . . And if this measure does pass, where will it stop?”

But the measure’s supporters take the opposite tack: If the measure does not pass, they declare, Irvine may well become “another San Francisco"--a haven for what they call the perversions of homosexuality.

Seen as Key Test

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As extreme as such projections may be, these intense emotions characterize a fight that is being watched around the county as a key test in the rapidly emerging gay rights battle.

“This is certainly the liveliest initiative we’ve had,” said Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, one of many city leaders opposing Measure N. At stake in the debate is a city ordinance approved unanimously by the Irvine City Council in the summer of 1988 which, among its broader provisions, bans discrimination based on sexual orientation in such areas as housing and employment.

Passage of Measure N would amend the ordinance to remove such protection from homosexuals. The measure is the work of a coalition of conservative and religious leaders who say the ordinance legitimizes an immoral life style.

The two sides have already traded a slew of newspaper ads, mailers and handouts--along with charges of campaign distortions and fraud, with each attack seeming to spark a more intense counterattack.

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And if a four-page, “Yes on N” newsletter distributed door to door in Irvine last week is any yardstick, the pace and acrimony of the young campaign seem likely only to accelerate in the month before Election Day.

In large, red letters, the publication declared “No Special Rights for Homosexuals” and warned that Irvine could become another “Gay Mecca,” much like “the tragedy of San Francisco.” And in an article labeled “not intended for children,” it described graphically the purported sexual and other acts of homosexuals.

To Scott Peotter, an Irvine architect who has led efforts to repeal the city’s gay rights protection, the publication was “a first strike.”

To James Boone, an Irvine chemist helping to lead the opposition, it was “as sleazy as I’ve ever seen it. We never expected them to sink to this level.”

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The Nov. 7 vote will offer the first official gauge of Orange County’s attitude toward the gay community, which has been slower to develop a political presence here than in others areas of the state.

‘Hits a Nerve’

“This is a test of where the community stands on this issue,” said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, the religious fundamentalist who has spearheaded anti-gay rights efforts around the area. “This issue hits a central nerve on the future of the heterosexual ethic in Orange County. And it will help determine whether we accept homosexuality as a viable life style,” Sheldon asserted.

Measure N opponents are confident about the result.

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“It would be a terrible blight on the city of Irvine if (Measure N supporters) were allowed to tear down our civil rights protection and open the gates to discrimination,” Boone said. “And I know the people of this city aren’t going to let that happen.”

He added: “I don’t believe the people of this area want some morality squad peeping into their bedroom, and I’m confident that in this election we can lay the issue to rest once and for all.”

The dispute is only the latest in the increasingly hostile and high-profile fight between Orange County gay activists and their opponents, led primarily by such controversial figures as Sheldon and conservative Republican Orange County congressmen William E. Dannemeyer of Fullerton and Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove.

“In Irvine, the people will decide whether or not they’re going to reaffirm the heterosexual ethic in our society,” Dannemeyer said at a stop this weekend at a conference on homosexuality organized by Sheldon.

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Recent debates over a first-of-its kind gay pride festival in Santa Ana, a countywide AIDS anti-discrimination measure, and the introduction of homosexual speakers at a Corona del Mar high school sex education class have marked the battlefield along the way. Now, the campaign shifts to Irvine.

5,400 Signatures

Last year, Irvine became only the second city in the county, after Laguna Beach, to make homosexuals a protected minority, allowing them civil remedies for discrimination claims. At least a half-dozen major cities around the nation, along with the state of Wisconsin, have adopted similar protections.

Measure N, put on the ballot after supporters gained more than 5,400 valid signatures, would delete any reference to “sexual orientation” from Irvine’s discrimination ban. And it would bar the council from proclaiming homosexuality a “fundamental human right” without a citywide vote.

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The initiative would not affect any of the other classifications now protected from discrimination under the city ordinance: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status or physical handicap.

And that, say supporters of the initiative, is the way it should be. Unlike race or gender, they argue, homosexuality is “a chosen life style.” To include it in the city’s anti-discrimination policy, the argument goes, is to give homosexuals “special protection” and to encourage a “perverse” life style.

“Laws like Irvine’s don’t help homosexuals in dealing with a compulsive behavior,” Peotter said. “It’s like giving an alcoholic a drink to help the problem.”

So crucial and far-reaching is the fight, Peotter said, that he welcomed help from more seasoned anti-gay activists around the county, a tactic that has sparked charges of outsider meddling from Measure N opponents in Irvine.

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Counters Peotter: “We’re a bunch of amateurs here, and we’ll go outside the city for help if that’s what it takes to win this thing.”

Chief among the “outsiders” are Dannemeyer, who has contributed at least $500 from his campaign fund in support of Measure N, and Sheldon, head of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, who has offered advice and support.

“Whatever I can do, I will,” he said. “Irvine is the center in many ways of Orange County. . . . Equal rights are one thing, but we do not believe in special rights for a behavior. Who’s next: pedophiles, prostitutes, drug abusers?”

The assertion cuts to the heart of the dispute, for many gays maintain that homosexuality is not a life-style decision.

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“I know that I never had a choice in being the way I am,” said Laguna Beach Mayor Robert F. Gentry, who is gay. “And to allow persecution and discrimination against someone for something you can’t control is un-American, it’s un-Christian, and it’s immoral.”

To date, only two discrimination claims have been been brought to the city of Irvine under its new civil rights ordinance, and neither involved sexual orientation, according to City Clerk Nancy Lacey.

But Measure N opponents nonetheless say the mere existence of the law helps to deter discrimination.

Spending Increases

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As of late September, the anti-Measure N campaign, organized as Irvine Citizens United, had raised $16,890, according to finance statements. The pro-N group, which recently changed its name from the Irvine Values Coalition to Citizens for Equal Rights, had collected $10,820.

But fund raising and spending are likely to accelerate in the next month. Last week’s “Yes on N” newsletter, not included in the most recent finance statements, cost between $5,000 and $10,000, Peotter said.

While the battle between the two sides has been fierce, rifts also have developed within each camp:

* Despite Sheldon’s claims that he has offered strong assistance and support in the Measure N campaign, Peotter has sought to downplay Sheldon’s role, portraying the campaign as a grass-roots movement.

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* Unlike her four colleagues on the Irvine City Council, all of whom oppose Measure N, Sally Anne Sheridan has remained officially neutral, which was “a great disappointment” to her colleagues, said Mayor Agran.

Sheridan, who voted for the original ordinance only grudgingly after some compromise, said: “I didn’t think it was really necessary to begin with. It was mostly symbolic.”

Now, with the issue heating up again, she has decided to let others do battle.

“Having an ordinance of this type produces tremendous divisiveness. You get people picking on each other, and it’s unfortunate to have this kind of polarization in a city where I don’t think there was much of a problem with discrimination in the first place,” Sheridan said. “Both sides are probably upset with me, so I’m in a lose-lose situation.”

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* And among gays, militant activists have clashed with moderates.

“This is not a gay issue,” asserts Boone, who is the only gay member of the 13-member, anti-N task force. “This is an issue of discrimination. Period.”

But Jeff LeTourneau, co-chair of the militant Orange County Visibility League, criticized some anti-N literature for stressing broad human rights issues and “trying to pretend that this is not a gay and lesbian issue.”

Joe Bel Bruno of Irvine contributed to this story.

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MEASURE N ELECTION

When: Nov. 7.

Where: Irvine

Provisions: The measure would repeal a portion of a broad civil rights ordinance passed by the City Council that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The ordinance, approved in the summer of 1988, also bars discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status and physical handicap and encompasses such areas as work and housing.

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Supporters: Citizens for Equal Rights (formerly the Irvine Values Coalition), which gathered more than 5,000 certified signatures to force the issue onto the ballot. Headed by Irvine architect Scott Peotter, the group has attracted support from such high-profile anti-gay activists as Reps. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), along with the Rev. Louis Sheldon, who heads an Anaheim-based organization. They argue that the measure provides special protection for what they call a chosen and perverse life style.

Opponents: Irvine Citizens United, which has gained support from many within the Irvine political establishment, including Mayor Larry Agran. Saying the initiative is the work of extremists, they argue that the issue is equal--not special--rights, and protection of all Irvine residents and workers against discrimination.

Background: The issue has touched off the costliest and liveliest initiative fight in city history, one seen as the latest battleground in the increasingly hostile war between gay-rights activists and religious fundamentalists.


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