LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - On a hot, muggy evening, Mike Silverman and his husband, David Greenbaum, walked into the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, toting a bag full of papers and documents, along with a colorful banner that had been rolled up and stowed away for most of the last 20 years.

Brittany Keegan, curator and collections manager at the museum was eagerly waiting for them.

Slowly, they unfurled the banner, proclaiming in bright, rainbow-colored letters the words “Freedom Coalition,” the local gay rights organization that, 20 years ago this year, led a years-long grassroots campaign to make Lawrence the first city in Kansas to pass an ordinance protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination, the Lawrence Journal-World (http://bit.ly/1CM1c0C ) reported.

That campaign, and the ordinance that followed, came to be known as “Simply Equal.”

Silverman said it’s hard not to be amazed at how much has changed in Lawrence, and in the United States, in just the two decades that followed.

“It seems ridiculous that in Lawrence, Kansas, of all places, 20 years ago, something this innocuous was ridiculously controversial,” he said. “Now this year, we have same-sex marriage nationwide, and history has moved on, which is a very nice thing.”

Opening the bag, Silverman pulled out handfuls of gay rights campaign buttons, some dating from the 1980s through the late 1990s. And there were piles of newspaper clippings, including numerous letters to the editor of the Journal-World expressing both strong support and opposition to the idea of an anti-discrimination law for gays and lesbians.

There are also stacks of papers and hand-written notes that underscore how much political campaigns, and the technology they use, have also changed over the years.

“It was a wonderful case study about social activism, recalled Kathy Greenlee, who was one of the political organizers behind Simply Equal.

Greenlee recalled that the Freedom Coalition began in the early 1990s, shortly after a high-profile incident in which a 22-year-old Native American man, Gregg Sevier, was shot and killed by Lawrence police officers.

“After Gregg Sevier’s death, the city really organized around issues of diversity and human rights,” she said. “I think there was an opportunity to look differently at how we treat people.”

Greenlee said she joined the Freedom Coalition about a year after it got started. The principal founder and organizer, she and others said, was Ben Zimmerman, a Kansas University professor emeritus in the School of Social Welfare. Zimmerman died in 2003 at age 85.

“He was really the inspiration, sort of the patriarch of the whole Simply Equal campaign,” Silverman said. “One of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Just an all-around nice person, a dedicated activist; diligent; always willing to talk to anybody, no matter what their position was.”

Greenlee said it was Zimmerman who developed a five-year strategic plan that focused on electing gay-rights supporters at all levels of government, but particularly the Lawrence City Commission.

“We were strategic in looking at primaries,” she said. “We worked hard, and we paid attention to the school board as well, but because we had a specific objective about the human relations ordinance, we worked until we had a majority on the City Commission.”

Despite Lawrence’s popular image as a bastion of liberalism in an otherwise conservative state, Silverman said in the days before passage of the ordinance, discrimination against gays and lesbians was not uncommon.

In fact, he said, he did not come “out of the closet” and join the Freedom Coalition until a year or two later.

“Everyone knew that Lawrence was the liberal town in Kansas, but it’s kind of funny. ‘Liberal’ back then would be almost conservative now,” he said. “You could lose a job or get kicked out of housing. There was no legal protection for sexual orientation in Lawrence or anywhere else in Kansas.”

“As part of this campaign that passed, there were personal stories from people that were discriminated against in housing, employment and public accommodations,” he said. “It’s not something that happens 50 times a day, but it’s discrimination that does occur. And it still occurs. Nothing is perfect yet.”

The municipal elections of 1995 finally produced the pro-gay-rights majority on the City Commission that the Freedom Coalition had sought.

A week after the election, during the new commission’s meeting, the ordinance passed, 3-2.

“The commission’s formal vote wasn’t a surprise,” the Journal-World reported at the time. “Commissioners already had taken stands on the issue - Jo Andersen, Allen Levine and John Nalbandian for the amendment; Bonnie Augustine and Mayor Bob Moody against it.”

Greenlee noted that after the vote there was jubilation among the Freedom Coalition, but they also braced themselves for possible backlash. For the next eight months, she said, Zimmerman continued holding meetings to develop a strategy in case opponents of the new law launched a petition drive to force it onto the ballot for a public vote.

But in the weeks and months that followed, the controversy faded, and opposition quickly dwindled.

Contacted this week to talk about memories of the vote, Nalbandian said it has all faded from his memory over 20 years and he couldn’t recall what the political dynamics were behind the vote.

Moody, however, remembered that he simply didn’t think the ordinance was necessary.

“I didn’t think there was a problem in Lawrence with discrimination, and apparently there hasn’t been,” he said. “Apparently no complaints have been issued with the city under that ordinance.

Bonnie (Augustine) Lowe, who now works for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, said if she had it to do over again, she would vote differently today.

“There was some conversation that I recall that when you started adding protective classes to the ordinance, where does that stop,” she said. “That hasn’t been the case. There has not been a lot of litigation, and the group being protected should not be discriminated against. The ordinance is fine. I’m comfortable with the ordinance and would vote in favor of it today.”

Looking ahead, though, Silverman and Greenbaum said that even though the LGBT community has made significant strides on the national front, in many ways things in Kansas have changed very little.

Greenbaum noted that although same-sex couples can be legally married in Kansas, in most parts of the state they can also be fired for getting married because only a handful of cities in Kansas have adopted anti-discrimination ordinances like Lawrence’s Simply Equal law.

Silverman added: “Our governor (in February) just rescinded statewide protections that were put in place by Gov. (Kathleen) Sebelius, just basically saying that the state government won’t discriminate. Something that was as noncontroversial and conservative as making sure the best person is hired for the job, Gov. (Sam) Brownback struck that from the books.”

But Silverman said the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage is cause for optimism. And he said the group’s original leader, Zimmerman, would be proud.

“Wherever he is, I hope he’s looking down and seeing that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

 


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