SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Randy Doenning organizes a charity gala for gay teens and AIDS patients, and he isn’t afraid to hold his male partner’s hand in public in the Bible Belt city where he lives.
The small-business owner also remembers when white supremacists bombed a gay church in Springfield, bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors were used at the local university for a play about a gay Jewish activist, and the school’s president refused to add sexual orientation to Southwest Missouri State University’s nondiscrimination policy.
As the elected leaders in the city of 160,000 debate whether to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Doenning and other activists are optimistic. They also know legal protections are anything but assured in a city that’s home to the national headquarters of the Assemblies of God Church and three Bible colleges.
Across the heartland, from regional economic hubs in southwest Missouri such as Springfield to the Kansas plains and Nebraska college towns, the battle for gay rights is playing out in city halls and town squares, often with opponents of expanded nondiscrimination laws trying to reverse decisions by government officials.
“Places like Springfield, Miss., are the trenches of this battle right now,” said Doenning.
In Lincoln, Neb., the groups Family First and the Nebraska Family Council quickly collected more than 10,000 signatures challenging a “fairness amendment” approved by the City Council in May, forcing the city to either let the ordinance die or submit it for voter approval. No decision was reached before the deadline for the November ballot.
Omaha, the state’s largest city, narrowly passed an ordinance in March extending legal protections to gay and transgender residents after a tie vote scuttled a similar attempt in October 2010.
In the Kansas towns of Salina and Hutchinson, opponents of expanded nondiscrimination laws have collected enough signatures to force public votes after similar recent decisions by their city leaders.
Something similar could happen in Springfield, where the City Council is meeting today.