Smut patrol

Cincinnati stamps out sin--and civil rights, besides

For complicated reasons, Cincinnati is sensitive about sin.
The city is graced with militant antipornography brigades, somewhat reminiscent of the Smut-Snatchers in Greater Tuna.

It turns out that this is one of the more peculiar legacies of Charles Keating, who later went on to become famous in the savings-and-loan debacle.

Before he got real careless with other people's money, Keating was big in antismut circles. You may think there are more important things to worry about in this world than whether your neighbors are reading Playboy, but in Cincinnati, these are serious matters. You may recall that the city caused some un-seemly amusement a few years ago by attempting to censor the work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, a fine but indubitably gay artist.

As often happens in the case of towns known for their righteousness (we have but to think of Abilene and Buffalo Gap), just across the river from Cincinnati is the town of Covington, Kentucky, which is, by legend, noted for its sinfulness. Covington has a Beer Museum.

Alas, legend disappoints, and Sunday in Covington is almost as flat as Sunday in Cincinnati.

But even the decline of Covington's sinfulness has not appeased the Cincinnati smut patrol. They're out to stamp out sin in Cincinnati. They appear to have their life's work cut out for them.

In addition to their efforts to keep Cincinnati free of smut, the legions of decency there have recently seized upon homosexuality to stir the citizenry to fevers of righteous indignation.

There is a certain chicken-and-egg argument that goes on anent this subject: "Well! If they would just stay in the closet and stop agitating for special rights, no one would be organizing against them."

But that's not true, is it? Gays often get hurt, even killed, when they're minding their own business and saying nothing.

Nor have they ever asked for special rights--just the same rights that everyone else has. They do, after all, pay the same taxes that everyone else does.

In recognition of this simple proposition, in 1992 the Cincinnati City Council passed a human-rights ordinance by a 7-2 vote, an ordinance that said people could not be discriminated against in employment, housing, or public accommodations solely because of their sexual orientation.

In addition to the usual suspects covered by the antidiscrimination ordinance, the council included "those with Appalachian regional identity," which is fairly esoteric.

Whereupon the curators of Cincinnati's civic virtue had a cow. They started an initiative not to repeal the ordinance but to amend the city charter so that gay, lesbian, or bisexual people could not be mentioned in any city ordinance or regulation, past, present or future.

They were not, however, upset by the prospect of not-so-special rights for those with Appalachian regional identity.

The charter amendment won by 22,000 votes, with the help of a generous $390,000 contributed by Coloradans for Family Values of Colorado Springs, Colorado, now the national headquarters for loopy hate groups.

The charter amendment was promptly hauled into federal court, where Judge Arthur Spiegel had no difficulty in finding it highly unconstitutional.

The city appealed, and the issue is now before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, one city council member moved to reconsider the "sexual orientation" part of the human-rights ordinance, and all hell broke loose.

The debate before the city council two weeks ago was one of those exercises that occasionally gives one such a gush of faith in democracy. True, the council voted 5-4 to remove gays from protection against discrimination, but damned if the debate itself turned out to be genuinely educational for the entire community.

Some minds were changed and some spirits moved, and in a time when civic discourse is too often just a mutual exchange of abuse, this miracle is worth examination.

The mother of three gay children broke down in tears. A gay man who believed his testimony would ruin his business nevertheless felt so strongly that he spoke out. The Reverend Hal Porter of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church quoted that awful radical Jesus Christ. God was invoked by both sides. A gay city employee spoke out.

The civic censors were full of outrage. People's voices trembled with passion; many were not eloquent; their grammar was not perfect, and their rhetoric was not flawless.

Dwight Tillery, a council member and former mayor, switched sides and made the antigay vote into a majority. On the other hand, Peter Bronson, the impeccably right-wing editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer, switched sides the other way and wrote a moving column about why he had been wrong earlier.

Envision Bobbie Sterne, an independent council member of somewhat advanced years, whom our mothers would identify right away as "a perfect lady."

Sterne's speech that tumultuous day at the Cincinnati City Council probably never will be included in Documents in American History. But it should be--it should be. It moved everyone who heard it.

America is full of such unlikely heroes.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

 
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