How Little Bisbee, Ariz., Became Gay-Rights Battleground

9:55 AM, Apr 4, 2013   |    comments
Kathy Sowden, left, and her partner of 20 years, Deborah Grier, are reflected April 2 in a mirror in their Bisbee, Ariz. shop, Finders Keepers Antiques and Collectibles. The couple supports a city ordinance legalizing civil unions. (Photo: Tom Tingle, The Arizona Republic)
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By Alia Beard RauThe Arizona Republic

BISBEE, Ariz. - In the midst of a highly charged national debate on same-sex marriage, this tiny southern Arizona community passed a city ordinance legalizing civil unions, a symbolic gesture against discrimination that is reverberating around the state.

It started as a speculative conversation between a councilman and a constituent here, partly an idea to boost tourism but also something that the newly elected councilman thought was the right thing to do for the artsy community and its large gay population.

STORY: Ariz. town OK's same-sex unions

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But it turned into a controversy that threatens to make Bisbee a legal battleground over same-sex rights.

Wednesday, less than 12 hours after the council's historic vote, the state Attorney General's Office said it would file a lawsuit challenging Bisbee's new ordinance, which goes into effect in early May.

The ordinance, which grants same-sex couples a civil-union certificate and allows them some of the rights of married couples, passed its initial council vote unanimously last month without any drama.

Nobody showed up at that meeting to oppose the proposal.

But the calm acceptance wouldn't last long.

Days later, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on two lawsuits challenging state and federal restrictions on same-sex marriage, turning the issue into a national firestorm. Then the battle over Bisbee's proposed ordinance ignited, drawing legal threats from state Republican officials and spurring a nasty community debate that has left both sides reeling.

"I'm gobsmacked," said Bisbee Councilman Gene Conners, who proposed the ordinance. "It was just a no-brainer. We're all pretty progressive. And then there was all this press and, 'Oh, that's right. We live in a red state.' "

On Tuesday night, after more than three hours of emotional pleas from residents on both sides of the issue, the council voted 5-2 to pass the ordinance. As Bisbee became the first city in the state to legalize same-sex civil unions, the reality of just how conservative-red Arizona is sank in for the little blip of blue called Bisbee.

"All of Bisbee is not for this," longtime resident Regina Drybread said at a packed City Council meeting. "There is nothing natural about homosexual unions. It's an abomination."

'We thrive on diversity'

Bisbee, which transformed decades ago from booming mining town into a quiet art community that attracts free spirits, has a diversity and outlook that some residents say is precisely why the City Council would embrace the idea of civil unions for all.

Tucked into the Mule Mountains southeast of Tucson, Bisbee was founded in 1880. Sitting on one of the richest mineral deposits in the world, the area produced gold, copper, silver, lead and zinc. It grew in the early 1900s into one of the largest cities in the Southwest with a population of 20,000.

Its 5 square miles are now home to about 5,600 residents.

After the mines closed in the 1970s, Bisbee became a haven for artists and retirees. Its narrow downtown streets are lined with historic buildings home to coffee shops, art galleries and antique stores.

In historic Old Bisbee, cars sport Democratic bumper stickers and equality signs. Shops proudly display photos of former Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The toy store sells handmade President Barack Obama dolls.

Conners called the ordinance a step in the right direction. But within Bisbee's boundaries, supporters hadn't considered the ordinance a leap. The city for years has been as well known for its annual gay pride celebration as it has for its haunted historic hotel.

Before Tuesday's council meeting, Bisbee residents supporting the ordinance thought it would pass easily and quietly again a second time.

"It's such a non-issue," said Hywel Logan, 38, who has been with his boyfriend for 12 years and owns the Teeny Tiny Toy Store. "To me, it's normal."

He said it was more of a symbolic gesture.

"But I appreciate that Bisbee is taking the first step," he said. "It at least puts us on the map as not being as scary as the rest of the state."

Grant Sergot, 63, who is heterosexual and has lived in Bisbee for nearly 40 years where he owns Óptimo Hatworks, described Bisbee as a "well-informed and educated community."

"Very independent-type people live here, free-thinking people," he said.

Kathy Sowden, who has been with her partner for 20 years and owns Finders Keepers Antiques and Collectibles, said a civil ordinance seemed natural for Bisbee.

"We're a border town," she said. "We thrive on diversity. It's not surprising at all that little Bisbee is the first to do this."

But as the afternoon went on, the issue became charged as rumors began to fly that churches from Phoenix were busing people in for the meeting and that dozens had signed up to speak out against civil unions. The little community of supporters was getting nervous, and phone calls went out to encourage others to show up. They walked into the meeting excited and a bit apprehensive about what they would find. But they were stunned by what they heard.

'It's a publicity stunt'

Since 1996, Arizona has had a law defining marriage as between one man and one woman. A 2006 ballot measure that would have defined marriage as only between a man and a woman and forbidden any legal status similar to marriage for same-sex couples failed.

But in 2008, voters approved adding the limited definition of marriage to the state Constitution.

Now 38 states, including Arizona, ban same-sex marriage. Nine states allow same-sex marriage. Twelve states allow some sort of civil union or domestic partnership, which offers same-sex couples varying levels of rights comparable to opposite-sex married couples.

Arizona law does not allow civil unions or domestic partnerships. But it doesn't ban them, either.

Sen. Ed Ableser, a Democrat from Tempe, Ariz., proposed legislation this session that would have legalized civil unions statewide.

Republican leadership didn't give the bill a hearing.

Bisbee's new ordinance, which goes into effect in May, creates a civil union recognized only within city limits. Any two unrelated, unmarried adults may seek a civil union certificate from the city clerk for $76.

It grants all the rights given to a married couple, including owning property together, inheriting property, buying life insurance, disposing of the remains of their partner, and guardianship and adoption. But only to the extent that the city has the authority to do so, City Attorney John MacKinnon said.

It also gives them the title of "spouse."

The conservative advocacy group Center for Arizona Policy, which was behind the state's ban on same-sex marriage, threatened to sue Bisbee over the ordinance.

Group President Cathi Herrod said not only do they believe the state's strict definition of same-sex marriage prohibits civil unions, but they think Bisbee is acting outside of its scope of authority as a subsidiary of the state.

"A city doesn't have the legal authority to take this action, to grant inheritance, community property and other rights granted by state law to married couples," Herrod said. "It's a publicity stunt. They must need tourism dollars."

On Monday, Center for Arizona Policy lawyer Josh Kredit sent Bisbee a letter stating that he doesn't believe the city has the legal authority under state law to offer civil unions.

"If the City of Bisbee enacts a law recognizing a quasi-marital relationship not provided for by Arizona law, it will likely find itself involved in expensive and time-consuming litigation, which it is likely to lose," Kredit wrote in the letter.

In a letter sent Tuesday before the vote, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne also threatened to sue the city.

"While it is our understanding that the City Council's intent is that the impact of the ordinance will be limited to the jurisdictional boundaries of the City of Bisbee, the impact goes beyond those boundaries," Horne wrote, mentioning the ordinance's reference to life insurance, adoption, property and other areas. "These are areas of state-wide concern and exceed the authority and powers of the City of Bisbee to regulate by ordinance."

MacKinnon disagrees, calling Horne's letter a "political statement."

"The attorney general is deliberately mischaracterizing what we are doing," he said. "The city will do as much as it can, and no more."

'It means so much'

Tuesday's council meeting started out on a civil note. Supporters sat on one side, opponents on the other. But both sides were smiling and greeting those they knew on the other side.

More than 100 people squeezed into a room with a capacity of 80. More tried to listen through open windows from the city building's front porch.

And then residents began to speak, and the civility ended.

Rumors that out-of-town churches were bringing in members proved untrue. But Bisbee congregations were out in force, stunning supporters even more that the opposition was from among their own residents.

Opponents focused on their religious beliefs and Bible passages. Proponents argued it was a civil-rights issue.

"I'm disgusted that the city council is even talking about an ordinance for civil unions," resident Gary Drybread said. "This is an abomination. It's against God's law."

Tom Holley, pastor of the Bisbee First Assembly of God church, said the ordinance is unacceptable. "This is against nature," he said. "It's a tragedy that we have become so immoral that we think this is OK."

Steve Sapp called the ordinance a "redefinition of morality."

"If this is allowed, then things like incest and bestiality could be allowed down the line," he said.

Mark Hundley, Logan's partner, his voice shaking, spoke directly to the opposition.

"I am not an abomination," he said. "It's strange to have to say that. It's strange to have to be here, begging for something that does so little. It's mostly symbolic, but it means so much."

How the impact of Bisbee's action plays out is far from clear. If the ordinance survives legal challenges, it could just become one more quirky attraction in a town full of them. Or other cities could follow suit, and Bisbee could become known as the place that spurred Arizona's revolution toward accepting same-sex unions.

"It'd be great if there's a little domino effect," Conners said.

And that may even begin Thursday night, when Tempe City Council discusses civil-union laws during a closed-door executive session. Councilman Kolby Granville said he requested the item be placed on the agenda. Within the next month, Granville plans to propose that an ordinance mirroring Bisbee's be placed on the formal agenda for a council vote.

"I think it's an important symbol that Bisbee supports equal rights," Granville said. "I think it would be an equally important symbol if other cities in Arizona followed suit showing their support for equal rights for the LGBT community."

Contributing: Dianna M. Náñez, The Arizona Republic


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