A CITY SCORNED
After the stunning Phoenix City Council vote on June 16 to, in effect, not vote on a controversial gay rights amendment, air horns blared and whistles blasted as supporters and opponents alike voiced their disapproval.
For a moment, the two factions that nearly filled the Civic Plaza showroom seemed to coalesce into a single-minded mob of thousands, snarling at the councilmembers sitting behind the long, elevated table. Mayor Paul Johnson didn't even have a chance to gavel down a formal adjournment before police hustled the councilmembers out a side exit.
Advised by the cops that appearing in public might not be the wisest course to follow, a few stunned city officials repaired to councilmember Craig Tribken's house off Central Avenue for drinks and debriefing.
Among those staring into their iced tea, orange juice or beer were the mayor, his aide Scott Phelps and veteran councilmember Mary Rose Wilcox (who the next day would announce her resignation to run for county supervisor).
We just sat around and looked at each other," Tribken recalls. We asked ourselves what were the clues we missed, what were the things that we should have picked up on that would have told us what was going to happen. We were all, to various degrees, angry at having been blindsided."
Last week's explosion shook loose more than anger. Just about every emotion has been unleashed by the fight over gay rights.
Phoenix city councilmembers are rarely surprised by what goes down at their meetings. Under Johnson, business is usually conducted with the appearance of little fury or friction. And while the debate over whether homosexual men and women ought to be extended legal protection from discrimination in employment and public accommodations had been vigorous, most observers were shocked when Vice Mayor Thelda Williams formally moved to put it on next year's ballot.
Tribken claims it was a setup." He says Williams and the four councilmembers who supported herÏKathy Dubs, Skip Rimsza, John Nelson and Frances Barwood-discussed the strategy prior to the meeting, excluding the three members who were on record as favoring the amendment-Tribken, Wilcox and Calvin Goode-as well as Johnson, who had been working to find a compromise.
The people at Tribken's house were stunned, but they weren't as disappointed as Bruce Johnsrud, who was too ill last week to leave his bed at a Phoenix hospice.
Johnsrud worked as a volunteer during Thelda Williams' first campaign, delivering materials house to house. Now Johnsrud is extremely ill with the AIDS virus. Every few moments, he must soothe his parched mouth with a swig of artificial saliva. His doctors tell him he has about a month to live. He won't see equal-rights protection extended to gays.
If the law doesn't protect you, you're somehow less a person," Johnsrud says. I wanted to go down to the meeting the other night, we had planned to go. But that day I got sick again. I couldn't make it."
Johnsrud recalls that while he worked for Williams he had several conversations with her that led him to believe she would support a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting gays. He says he wonders what happened. He's more bewildered than anything else.
I would just ask her why," he says. I would just say, `Why, Thelda, did you change your mind and not tell us?' I can understand that sometimes in politics you have to do certain things that you might not want to do, but why couldn't she have let us know? I don't want to say she stabbed us in the back, I don't want to say that, but I've got to feel that."
Williams insists her motion to send the issue to voters was always an option," and she even invokes the name of Ross Perot.
We've always talked about the possibility of sending it to the voters," says Williams. That's always been there. It's just never got any attention from the media. I don't know why it's getting all this attention now, just when people seem to want to take more control of their government. That's what Ross Perot is all about."
Tribken, who was not among the three Phoenix city councilmembers who elected to wear bulletproof vests to the raucous June 16 meeting, claims Williams and her allies blindsided" the rest of the council.
The 5-4 vote on Williams' motion placed the proposed amendment to the city's antidiscrimination ordinance on the ballot in the next municipal election, scheduled for October 1993. Instead of finally settling the issue after nearly eight months of hearings and debate, the council's vote seems almost certain to plunge the city into a pitched battle between gay rights activists and the religious right. Both sides are vowing prolonged propaganda campaigns.
Given this council's almost pathological avoidance of conflict, the outcome seemed truly perverseÏwhat many read as an attempt to deflect controversy not only created a rift in the council but also angered people on both sides of the issue.
Williams and Skip Rimsza may be the most vulnerable to the political crossfire engendered by the council's perceived ducking of the issue. Now neither the opponents nor the supporters of gay rights say they trust either councilmember.
While members of the gay community have worked as volunteers in his campaigns, Rimsza has been careful not to commit himself on the issue, and neither side counted on his vote.
I think Thelda and Skip are good people, but they just lack political courage," says Charlie Harrison, a gay activist extensively involved in city politics. I'm really sorry what's happened to them. It really breaks my heart."
Not everyone is so charitable. Even a councilmember who joined Rimsza on the crucial vote doles out a share of blame to Rimsza and Mayor Johnson. Frances Barwood says she voted to send the issue to a ballot precisely because she was unsure how Johnson and Rimsza would vote on the issue.
I couldn't take the chance that we would pass the amendment," Barwood says. I thought it was better to let the voters decide it than to possibly have it pass. I couldn't do that."
Last week's vote caused more fissures than an earthquake. Opponents of the ordinance, like Cathi Herrod, a lawyer who heads the Arizona chapter of Concerned Women of America, wanted to know where each councilmember stood. While I agree that this issue would have eventually gone to the ballot regardless," she says, ÔI think we should have everyone [on the council] on record."
Some supporters of the ordinance felt betrayed by councilmembers like Williams and Rimsza, for whom they had volunteered during campaigns. But while supporters may have lost some friends to the political heat, they also seem to have gained an unlikely ally. Both the ®MDUL¯Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette editorialized on behalf of the proposed amendment, and Republic editorial page editor William Cheshire even produced a June 14 column that argued for adoption of the amended ordinance on moral and theological grounds. (See related story.)
In addition to making curious bedfellows of the daily newspapers and the gay community and to sundering trust between councilmembers and constituents, the debate has also generated some fascinating friendships and feuds. For instance, Cathi Herrod and Peter Crozier-a physicist at Arizona State University who is spokesperson for the Lesbian and Gay AllianceÏbecame friends after appearing together on various radio talk shows to debate the issue. Now they occasionally lunch together. Herrod says they even trade political intelligence.
You have to keep in mind it's not the person across from you who you're attacking," says Herrod. Peter and I are friendly with one another. We're adults who respect each other's opinion. When we get on the air we vigorously defend our positions, but it doesn't have to carry over into personal bad feeling."
It is unlikely, however, that the debate over gay rights will be remembered for its civil temper. Frank Meliti, who says he's president of a group called the Arizona Coalition of Patriotic Societies, is an example of someone who's deliriously happy and angrily defiant at the same time.
It's the best thing that could happen," Meliti says of the council's vote to not vote. We're tired of having the homos trying to ram these things down our throats-the gay lobby was trying to push this on the people, trying to weasel around behind the scenes and get it through. Well, it's not going to work. This is just like the Martin Luther King thing. They tried to ram that down our throats and we're not going to stand for it."
Meliti still is trying to make an issue of a gay man's letter to Barwood that Meliti says is threatening," though no threat is apparent. Why do we have to accept what they're doing?" Meliti says. It's not moral and it's not proper. It just isn't. And they can get violent."
Though the debate over civil rights has galvanized the gay community, the image of militant gay terrorists bombing houses or taking pot shots at councilmembers seems a little far-fetched.
Give me a break," one gay leader says, adding with a good-natured laugh, Fags aren't going to blow you away if they don't like what you do. I mean, the worst that could happen is that we could all get together and ruin everybody in Phoenix's hair. Or there might be a rash of drive-by slappings."
NEW PALS... v6-24-92
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.