LGBT rights debate heating up in Topeka, Kansas

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First, as the city council of Topeka, Kansas passed a new anti-LGBT discrimination law on a surprisingly lopsided 6-2 vote on September 17, city councilman John Campos II publicly stated that he was an “open, Christian, Catholic bisexual.” Then, ordinance sponsor Chad Manspeaker rebutted religiously motivated arguments from critics during a contentious public debate by stating, bluntly, “The Bible is not our Constitution.”

That’s some pretty big talk for any southern, largely conservative city of 127,000 people, but it raises eyebrows particularly because Topeka is also the home of infamous anti-gay trolling group the Westboro Baptist Church. In fact, city officials have sometimes cited a perceived need to be more active in LGBT issues to counter the church’s effect on Topeka’s public image.

WBC responded to the vote in typically charming fashion via Twitter: “Shock: City of Topeka council full of fags.”

Only councilwomen Sylvia Ortiz and Elaine Schwartz voted against the measure. Schwartz says she felt obligated to represent the wishes of her constituents. “My district overwhelmingly opposed it,” Schwartz told 429Magazine. “This is one of those cases where the vote of the council may have been totally different from the vote of the people. If you don’t represent your district, you’re not going to get reelected, and that’s the ultimate expression of democracy.”

Schwartz hastened to add that she believes Topeka should be a “diverse community that accepts all people,” citing her personal experiences with a gay cousin who died of AIDS. Schwartz proposed an amendment to the measure Tuesday night changing the language so that it applied to “all citizens” (without citing any particular group), which failed on a 2-6 vote. She also pointed out that three other Kansas cities, Salina, Manhattan, and Hutchinson, previously passed similar mandates only to have them overturned by costly voter mandates.

Councilman Campos seemed unconcerned about the political fallout of the vote and his disclosure. “If I lose an election in two years because of my sexuality, that’s fine,” Campos said at the meeting. “This is something I will support, and I challenge everyone in this city to have an open heart.”

Residents of Topeka voiced a host of responses, flooding the Topeka Capital-Journal with comments. “Society has become a really sad sick joke,” one reader complained. “I dread what moral decay the future holds for our citizenry. I am not a Phelps, nor do I hate gays, but the whole ‘they were born that way’ argument is BS. Gays choose that lifestyle.”

Others interjected more nuanced opinions: “Sexual orientation includes heterosexuals as well. Probably not high on many people’s expectations of being discriminated against, but it was there. The only lifestyle choice on the list of protections is religion. That’s a mighty honor indeed.”

The bill actually has little immediate, practical effect. No new protections are extended and no new enforcement authority is included. Rather, the ordinance simply adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of demographics that the city’s Human Relations Committee has authority over in its educational mandate.

Topeka council members serve four year terms; Manspeaker and Campos are up for reelection again in April 2015, while Schwartz and Ortiz’s term ends in 2017.

429Magazine

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