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Gay-rights leaders hail progress in Phoenix
When word got out that a server objected to a lesbian couple kissing at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel in late February, the incident shocked most everyone who heard about it.
For days, friends and strangers took to the Facebook page of the District American Kitchen and Wine Bar, the hotel's restaurant, to express outrage that a couple's anniversary dinner could be ruined in a public space in 2012.
But what could have become a step backward for the Valley's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community -- and a public-relations black eye for the Sheraton and Phoenix -- turned out to be a progressive, teachable moment with an official apology, a stakeholders forum and plans for future collaboration, according to GLBT community leaders and others involved in the resolution.
The fact that the couple's terrible night had a positive outcome shows how far the gay community, as well as Phoenix, has come in the last 30 years, leaders of the GLBT community say.
In years past, an episode like the Sheraton incident might have sparked a march or other type of protest.
But the Sheraton quickly invited the couple, Kenyata White and Aeimee Diaz, both 38, and about 25 groups to a resolution-seeking forum, including the mayor's office, Equality Arizona, Human Rights Campaign, Phoenix Pride, the GLBT group One n Ten, and leaders from the African-American, Hispanic and Asian communities.
"It was interesting to see all these groups coming together and have a clear understanding of what needed to be done," said Diaz, who lives with White in Mesa. "And now, people are talking about these things, because of what happened to us. ... It's touched a lot of people."
A shift from confrontation
The growing acceptance of the GLBT community nationally has meant that leaders in the Phoenix community have been able to shift from protesting and confrontational activism to more public outreach and partnership building over the last five years, said Michael Weakley, director of One n Ten, a youth-resource organization.
"The community is maturing and working well together more than ever before," Weakley said. "Those of us who used to protest and then go to the bars together 10 years ago, went and got our educations and now we're leaders, so we all know each other and can work together much more effectively."
Rebecca Wininger, a member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, added that, "There's always a time for activism, picket lines and marches."
"But there's also a time for meetings, for getting together to make sure everyone understands each other. That's what the LGBT community understands these days."
Bruce Christian, a former managing editor and current columnist at Echo Magazine, which serves the GLBT community, said a decline in activism could be tied to the lack of a single unifying issue to coalesce around.
"There's no particular issue that is driving this community the way SB 1070 is driving the Hispanic community," he said. "Even with gay marriage, we can see progress being made in federal courts. We can see it coming.
"Phoenix is live and let live; I don't think there are too many straight people that care if the couple next door is gay, and I don't think there's too many gay people who care if the couple next door is straight."
A community matures
In 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimated that 6.4percent of Phoenix's population identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. That equates to about 63,222 people. The number is much larger when other Valley cities are taken into account.
The process of becoming a cohesive community has been building for three decades. Leaders in the GLBT community point to the first Phoenix Pride march in 1981 as the key moment. About 1,000 people descended on the Arizona Capitol, marking the first time gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender men and women in the Valley had organized effectively to demonstrate for a change in policy, and a change in society.
Since then Phoenix Pride has grown from a march to a small celebration to increasingly bigger festivals. Next Saturday and Sunday, an estimated 30,000 people are expected to fill Steele Indian School Park for the 32nd annual Phoenix Pride Festival.
Meanwhile, some of the changes sought in that first march have taken hold. Tempe began offering benefits for domestic partners of unmarried employees in 1999. Scottsdale followed suit in 2001, and the state introduced partner benefits in 2008.
Phoenix launched a domestic-partner registry in 2009, granting visitation rights in any health-care facility in Phoenix, and several other cities are considering similar measures.
Stages of a community
Since that first march, the Valley's GLBT community has gone through the four major stages all minority groups must in order to achieve equality, according to Mark Naison, professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University in New York.
Once a group has identified itself, Naison said it must find a model of activism that works. Second, it must establish an intelligentsia that can lead the community by organizing events and writing fliers, news releases, books, plays and other tracts.
Third, the community must have a public face, including marches, protests, rallies, acts of civil disobedience or message-filled performance art. For example, in Arizona, this activism looks like the 2008 rallies at the state Capitol to promote marriage equality. And lastly, a community must establish institutions to promote its goals, including the election of its members to political offices and the founding of magazines, newspapers and academic programs at area universities and colleges.
"Every movement has the first stages: march, protest, sit-in," Naison said. "But people are not going to keep going to jail, going to keep sacrificing their careers or safety forever. Then you have to create institutions. And once you do, you're going to be around for a while."
Naison said that considering the "very powerful conservative tendency in Arizona politics," the degree to which the GLBT community in Arizona has established itself speaks well of its ability to sustain itself.
A key part of the GLBT community growth has been its institutions, which have grown with it.
After 12 years of publishing, the Valley's biweekly gay news magazine Echo had only 65 listings in 2002 for GLBT and gay-friendly groups, organizations and services. The most recent edition had 140 groups listed in the same category, according to managing editor Glenn Gullickson.
Echo, founded in 1988, prints 16,000 copies twice a month. The GLBT entertainment magazine Ion, which has been printing in Phoenix since 2001, prints 10,000 copies monthly. Its first issue was 48 pages; now it's up to 132.
The Greater Phoenix Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce has experienced similar growth. When it launched 32 years ago, 90percent of member businesses were gay- or lesbian-owned. Today, 40percent of new business memberships are straight-owned, and straight-owned businesses account for 42 percent of an overall membership of about 500 businesses.
"The change has been unbelievable," chamber director Jim Jackson said. The world is definitely changing,"
One n ten started in 1993 serving about 20 GLBT youths a week for the first 10 years with one meeting space in Phoenix. Now, One n Ten has meetings in Mesa, Glendale, Tempe and central Phoenix, as well as a summer camp in Prescott, serving about 350 youths each week.
On March19, One n Ten opened Arizona's first high school for GLBT youth. Q High provides a full, accredited curriculum through Arizona Virtual Academy online, the same program the YMCA uses, and has two academic counselors on-site six days a week. The youth center serves 60 to 80 youths daily.
GLBT leaders say the future of Phoenix's community lies in enlisting straight allies and in building relationships with other minority organizations. About four years ago, the attitude went from being "keep your money in the community," a stance borne of self-protection and self-support, to one centered on outreach.
Four years ago, Angela Hughey founded One Community, an GLBT-friendly organization that promotes allied businesses through networking, member discounts and other services.
Hughey started with about 20 businesses and the goal of getting mom-and-pop and corporate businesses to partner with, to serve and to recognize the GLBT community in Phoenix. One Community also helps organize events like the multicultural conversation held during the 2011 Phoenix mayoral race in which about 20 minority organizations came together to host a candidate debate at Phoenix College.
Now, One Community has about 300 member businesses dedicated to consumer activism, 80percent of which are straight-owned.
"The idea is that you vote with your dollars," said Hughey. "And it's time to support the businesses that support our community. Once you know (GLBT people), your propensity to vote against us plummets."
The Phoenix GLBT community has also stepped up its outreach to other minority communities, Hispanics specifically, through framing the struggle for the right to marry and for equal protection as a civil-rights issue.
Phoenix-based Chicanos Por La Causa, one of the largest Hispanic community-development organizations in the country, has been actively involved with the GLBT community in the Valley for about seven years, said Argie Gomez, the organization's chief economic-development officer.
What started out as coordination of HIV/AIDS programming has grown into a shared mission of helping Hispanic families to better accept and support their GLBT members.
But it's not a given that the Hispanic community will see the gay struggle for equality as related to or similar to its struggle for passage of the Dream Act or for comprehensive immigration reform.
"As an organization, we haven't had that conversation -- about civil rights -- and that's the conversation the gay community is asking groups to have, and it's appropriate for them to ask," Gomez said.