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Both sides in Hutchinson look for the good after gay-rights vote

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, at 9:28 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, at 6:52 a.m.

— After the vote on gay rights protections here, people tried to find something good from acrimony.

The gay-rights supporters think they found something, though they lost big in the vote.

They think they may have found a way to help people in town. This time, gay rights advocate Jon Powell said, no one will likely object.

The opposition view

Opponents of the ballot measure saw much that seemed bewildering.

Gene Elliott, retired from a career in insurance, did not campaign against the measure, but disliked it. There are bigger problems, he said.

Elliott, a member of the local tea party group called the Patriot Freedom Alliance, said tea party members here have no ax to grind against those who are gay or anyone else. He personally feels sorry for their suffering. The tea party folk pray at every monthly meeting, but only to ask for God’s help, he said. Their earthly focus is stopping the federal deficit. Fail to stop that, he said, and you cannot fathom the suffering. “It’ll be all of us suffering.”

Why Hutchinson had to get side-tracked so bitterly on this other thing didn’t make sense to him. He took no joy in the ballot issue’s defeat, and felt sadness at the Republican defeat in the presidential race. He doesn’t think President Obama understands how serious the deficit problems will become, how it will hurt many people.

Elliott has lived here for a long time, has gay friends, goes to church, disapproves vehemently of anyone discriminating against gays. “I know some of them have probably been mistreated,” he said. “And I am very sorry about that. That shouldn’t happen.”

But the local campaign did happen too, with name calling, yard sign theft, and deeply personal criticisms. Some members of Awaken Hutchinson openly referred to the gay measure as a group of people raising “a bathroom issue.” Religiously inclined people said the measure sought to curtail religious liberties. Business people like Paul Waggoner said it was yet another poorly constructed law that would complicate the work of business owners. Some of the business owners opposing the measure, he said, employ gay people. So much for the idea that they shun them, he said.

If there is good from any of this, Waggoner said, it’s that city leaders perhaps learned a lesson. They put an unpopular measure on the ballot. It lost. He hopes this is the end of what he called “stunts like that.”

Waggoner was explaining this late Tuesday, at The Raz, a grill and bistro on North Lorraine Street, as the final returns were coming in from the Reno County Clerk’s Office a few miles distant.

Like most other local governments, Waggoner said, Hutchinson has a long history of doing the right thing in protecting minorities and the vulnerable with local laws.

But those laws, whether to ensure civil rights to minorities, or to help disabled people, all came to pass in Hutchinson years ago after they’d been vetted, examined and debated on a national level. In contrast, this debate sprung up locally, and was thrust upon residents of Hutchinson by city leaders whom Waggoner said lacked the experience, background and understanding of the nuances of the issue to put it out there. Many of those residents, thoughtful and kindly to each other on most days, resented the implication that they were so lacking in decency that they needed to be told to be fair to people.

The measure got rejected, by voters, overwhelmingly, Waggoner said, and not because people want to persecute any group, but because the ballot issue just didn’t make sense for the community at this time, in this form.

The proponents

But 17 blocks south of The Raz, in a little apartment complex clubhouse where the gay-rights group had gathered Tuesday night, Chad Graber, a real estate appraiser, sat down with a grin to eat dinner with his friends. He told his story slowly, warily, as though wondering how what he had to say would play out.

Graber once had a church to go to in Hutchinson, he said. He played keyboards for the services.

A year or two ago, he said, he was kicked out by the preacher himself. Graber had not come out as gay, so his expulsion was based on the actions of someone else, he said. “Someone outed me,” Graber said. “They had told the minister that they didn’t want me up there on stage, playing keyboards, in what looked like a leadership position. So I had to go.” He’d attended that church for three and a half years.

Being gay in Hutchinson is an ordeal, he said. Wondering what people think, watching what you say. Hearing what happens to friends. “I have my own home,” he said. “But I have friends who’ve been evicted, or who can’t find anyone to let them have an apartment here.”

A few feet away from where Graber sat, Karla Karam was playing kid poker with some of the children of members of this group. She was there to play cards with kids, as the people around them ate and laughed and talked as friends and family, and comforted each other as the measure lost.

Karam is no stranger to the mean streak in some local people, she said. She happens to be straight, not gay, and she married a devout Catholic years ago, and when she married him some people said mean things, because he’s Lebanese. “Why did you go off and marry a foreigner?”

She had little patience with the religious inflection some of the gay-rights opponents adopted in this debate. Hutchinson has a strong church demographic, she said, and that’s a good thing “except for the part of it that gets real judgmental.”

She looked around the clubhouse gathering and grinned. There are people in this room, she said, who have suffered grievously because of whom they love. At age 53 now she was too young to join the civil rights movement. When this issue came along, and even before that, she decided to ally herself with the people in this room.

Two weeks ago, when she was leaving a Dillons store, a young girl helped carry her groceries to her vehicle and saw the sign on the back: “Vote Yes.” And the girl came out to her, right there, told a stranger she is gay, and tormented, and sad at times. Her family had been startled by her revelation, and had not yet adjusted. No one knows how these people suffer in this town, Karam said. But many seem intent on reframing a request for rights into an “attack on religion.”

Across from where Karam stood sat Jon Powell, who helped found the Kansas Equality Coalition. Crippled and ill from rheumatoid arthritis, he sat all night, with people bringing him food or drinks as he called up the election returns on his laptop and watched his cause go down hard, 8,110 to 5,783.

He knows nearly everyone in town, is a friend to doctors, lawyers, business people. A lot of good people in Hutchinson call Jon Powell a friend, and hug him when he walks by.

“What people in town who criticize us don’t seem to know is that we are all around you here,” he had said. “And we have always been all around you. And though you may think you know us, you really don’t know who we are.”

But he knows them. And like Karla Karam he has heard people come out to him, surprised and deeply moved that someone finally understood what is going on and who is being shunned, rejected and expelled behind the scenes in Hutchinson.

A few hours before the vote, he’d wondered aloud what would happen if they lost.

But maybe, he said, there’s a use for this group even now that they’ve lost.

He said so many people had come out as gay to them and told their stories of rejection and hurt. After giving those people hope, Powell said, perhaps they could become a support group, and give them more than hope. Maybe they could give them plans, and ideas, and suggestions, and friendship.

In a town where they felt rejected for whom they love, they could give them the kindness and understanding denied them by others.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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