Campaign Targets City’s Gay-Rights Vote
Under a lipstick-pink awning, Rodney’s LeFoXX promises a tantalizing “girls show.” Around the corner, next to the Quick-Cash Pawn, a cinderblock storefront marked by flashing neon lights beckons with “Kentucky’s Most Beautiful Girls.”
But it was not these threats to public morals that brought Citizens for Community Values here last week.
The conservative activist group, based across the Ohio River in Cincinnati, has made a national reputation crusading against “adult” businesses. In Covington, however, it had a different target: a proposed law to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation, such as restaurants and hotels.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance tonight. It seems likely to pass. Yet that hasn’t stopped the activists from waging an all-out, and often, controversial, campaign to stop it.
Citizens for Community Values -- which has made a mission of rooting X-rated videos, soft-porn magazines and peep booths from Cincinnati -- mailed a 24-page booklet about “the destructive homosexual lifestyle” to nearly every household in Covington, a heavily Catholic community in far northern Kentucky, with a population of about 50,000.
In an accompanying letter, the group’s president, Phil Burress, argued that the anti-discrimination ordinance “actually discriminates against all of us ... [because] it takes away our very basic right to make decisions based on our convictions about another person’s behavior.”
Citizens for Community Values also wrote to Roman Catholic churches in northern Kentucky, asserting that the Vatican would not approve of the nondiscrimination law. The letter urged pastors to contact Covington’s five City Council members -- all of whom happen to be Catholic -- “to ask that they consider seriously how they might properly integrate their faith with the responsibilities they have been given as public servants.”
But the aggressive campaign appears to have backfired.
Several council members bristled at the notion that their religion compelled them to vote no.
“My faith is between me and God, and if I’m going to seek counsel on how my faith would address this issue, I would go to the experts, not to some group that comes out of the blue,” said Bernie Moorman, a council member.
In two packed public hearings, Covington residents overwhelmingly expressed support for the law.
“I am for any group to have rights,” said Juan Catacore, 58, a Bolivian immigrant who owns a pizzeria. “You shouldn’t be discriminated against because you’re from a different country or because you believe in the Democrats or the Republicans.”
Dissenters tend to emphasize practical, rather than moral, concerns. Pharmacist Bob Salmon, for instance, said he worries that he might feel compelled to hire a lesbian applicant, even if she’s less qualified, just so he doesn’t get sued or fined. “I’m put in a corner,” he said. (In response to such concerns from small-business owners, the council will likely exempt businesses with fewer than eight employees.)
It is unclear how much discrimination gays and lesbians in Covington suffer. The Human Rights Commission here has received very few reports of prejudicial treatment. But gay-rights activists say that’s because victims have been afraid to come forward.
In emotional testimony earlier this month, Tom West, 39, told the council that he and a friend were subjected to offensive comments at a local restaurant after the hostess presumed, incorrectly, that they were gay. “It was humiliating,” West said. “This ordinance would send a signal that, although there may be people here who act this way, we as a community are not going to tolerate it.”
Only two cities in Kentucky -- Lexington and Louisville -- prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Across the nation, however, 14 states and more than 240 cities offer similar protection, as do more and more private businesses. Just this month, JCPenney Co. and the FedEx Corp. took steps to extend protection to homosexuals.
Cincinnati activist David Miller said his group decided to make a stand in Covington out of fear that a law here would inspire similar ordinances throughout the tri-state region, which covers northern Kentucky, southwestern Ohio and southeastern Indiana.
“These kind of laws create a growing acceptance of homosexuality,” Miller said. “Our children are the most vulnerable to this, because they will grow up thinking that homosexuality is normal, healthy, natural -- you’re either left- or right-handed, you either like chocolate or vanilla, you’re either gay or straight. And they will naturally suffer harm, pain and heartache and health consequences, if they experiment with same-sex behavior.”
He concedes that the ordinance will probably pass. But he holds out hope that voters will elect a new council to revisit the issue in a year or two. That’s what happened in the western Kentucky town of Henderson (pop. 26,000), where the council passed an antidiscrimination law, and then a few years later deleted the clause about sexual orientation.
Miller’s dire warnings about “pro-homosexual brainwashing” appear to have made little impression in Covington, a city of brick row houses and a majestic stone cathedral, stunning river views and boarded-up downtown lofts.
“People in Covington are not buying this line. They know we’re not horrible people, that we’re not trying to do all these dangerous things, because we’re their friends. We’re their neighbors,” said Matt Nicholson, regional organizer for the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, which advocates for gay rights.
“I don’t have a problem with the ordinance,” said Sue Taylor, 45, who owns an accessories shop. “Everyone’s welcome in my store.”