Gay mayor promotes LGBT fairness in small-town Kentucky

August 19, 2013

In its latest “People Who Are Destroying America” segment, the Colbert Report shined a spotlight last week on Johnny Cummings, the openly gay mayor of the tiny Appalachian haven of Vicco, Ky., (pop. 334). The town bears the distinction of being the smallest city in America to adopt an ordinance banning discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The brilliantly satirical investigation into the mayor’s influence and accomplishments, including strong testimonials by the citizens of Vicco to his effective governance, is as humorous as it is heartwarming. “Watch this before you make assumptions about what it must be like to live in Kentucky,” Lujza Hayes Nehrebeczky, a gay-rights advocate in Lexington, Ky., proudly posted on Facebook.

“As a 10-year resident of Lexington, I can attest to the fact that Kentucky is not as closed-minded as people like to imagine or portray it to be,” said Hayes Nehrebeczky, a Hungarian immigrant who has made Kentucky her home. To her, the city of Vicco’s fairness ordinance represents the slow but persistent cultural shift toward more tolerance of LGBT people in a state known for its religious and political conservatism. (That political conservatism is powerfully championed on the national level by Republican senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.) Despite the firm grip of the some social conservatives on Kentucky’s representation in the national arena, large and small pockets of LGBT activism and leadership can be found throughout the state.

When Vicco’s City Commission acted to protect its citizens from sexual and gender discrimination in January, it became the fourth Kentucky city, along with Lexington, Louisville, and Covington, to enact such an ordinance. The current Democratic mayor of Lexington, Jim Gray, came out in 2005 as gay, an announcement that did not harm his candidacy for office several years later. And during the most recent state legislative session, LGBT activists, along with the ACLU and other civil rights groups, pressured Gov. Steve Beshear to veto a “religious freedom bill” that would uphold the right of an individual or religious organization to engage in discriminatory actions based on religious conviction.

Excitement in the LGBT community over this successful lobby effort was short-lived, however, as the bill’s sponsor, Democratic State Rep. Bob Damron, pushed for a vote to override the veto. Ultimately, the bill passed. The law, which went into effect in June, protects “the right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief” from legal interference “unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest.” Sixteen other states have passed comparable legislation.

No doubt the passage of this “religious freedom law,” which was backed by the Catholic Conference of Kentucky and other church groups, has been reassuring to Kentuckians who contest gay rights on the basis of religion. In the “Colbert Report” story, this opposition is voiced by Vicco resident and clergyman Truman Hurt.  “Fairness is nothing but a trick word,” he states, and “I think [gays] should go back to the closet, where they belong.”

I the spirit of Hurt’s wish, several churches in the state have taken action to close the closet door on gay youth by publicly cutting ties with the Boy Scouts of America after its National Council voted in May to allow gay troop members.

But as Vicco’s citizens expressed overwhelming support for their mayor and a no-nonsense attitude toward the values of tolerance and acceptance, there are also indications throughout Kentucky that decency, kindness and respect are rippling through the long-held attitudes that sustain discrimination against LGBT citizens. Cummings told the “Colbert Report” that he has heard from representatives from five other towns interested in passing fairness ordinances. And in June the Kentucky Human Rights Commission recognized Cummings with the Kentucky Unbridled Spirit for Justice Award, in recognition of his work in expanding civil rights protections in Vicco.

To LGBT advocates impatient for larger-scale structural reforms, and especially to victims of bullying, harassment and other more subtle forms of discrimination, these small-scale, slow-tempo steps toward change may seem frustratingly limited in scope. And it’s not known how the potentially competing legal protections of local fairness ordinances will fare alongside the religious freedom protections guaranteed by the new state law.

But the instructive lesson captured by the Colbert broadcast’s focus on Vicco’s mayor and its townspeople is the fundamental role of relationships in changing people’s attitudes and values. Person after person spoke glowingly about Cummings’s effectiveness in improving their community. The police officer in the segment referred to the mayor as being “like a brother” to him. Clearly, Johnny Cummings has become in the eyes of his community not a “gay man” or a “gay mayor,“ but a man and a mayor who happens to be gay.

And once individuals exist outside the categories (or closets) of our predetermined notions, once they define themselves on their own terms, there is no going back. The uniqueness of individual complexity looms too large to fit into a stereotype.

So maybe, in their willingness to support their mayor on the basis of his merits and in their open-minded acceptance of people who are different, maybe the people Vicco are “destroying” a piece of America, after all. And maybe they are replacing that piece with something better.

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