In Miami, a major test of gay rights

A referendum on Sept. 10 is the next battle in a series of votes in US cities.

A campaign to repeal a local ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation is emerging as a major test in an ongoing national debate over the rights of homosexuals.

Both sides of the debate view the outcome of the Sept. 10 referendum in Miami-Dade County as a potential watershed in competing efforts to either advance or suppress gay rights.

The stakes are also high here because Miami is under active consideration as a site for both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2004. And local business leaders are worried that the controversy could hurt South Florida's economy.

The campaign has been anything but mundane, with no shortage of mud to sling. In recent weeks, the president of the Miami-Dade Christian Coalition and three other repeal workers have been arrested on charges that they fraudulently collected signatures in the repeal petition drive. Gay-rights activists say the arrests suggest that their opponents are resorting to unethical and illegal tactics.

"We believe there is a concerted effort to misinform the public by the Christian right as they launch these anti gay ballot initiatives," says Jubi Headley of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington.

Politically motivated arrests?

Repeal proponents say the timing of the charges so close to election day suggest they are politically motivated to discredit their campaign on the eve of the vote.

"Can you ever imagine this happening to a gay group that got something on a ballot through a petition drive they supported?" asks Peter LeBarbera of the Culture and Family Institute of the Concerned Women of America.

At the center of it all is a 1998 county ordinance that bars discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, credit and finance, and public accommodations.

Roughly 150 jurisdictions across the country have passed similar measures, and many of them are being challenged by groups opposed to gay rights.

But what makes the Miami referendum highly symbolic, gay rights activists say, is that it is a virtual replay of the 1977 repeal vote spearheaded by former Miss America and Florida orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant.

In that campaign, an ordinance identical to the 1998 measure was erased from the books in a 70 to 30 percent landslide. The action provided a blueprint for other attacks on gay-rights measures.

"It was a crushing defeat, but now things are different," says Georg Ketelhohn, who is leading the effort to uphold the ordinance.

It took 20 years before the 1977 Miami-Dade ordinance was narrowly reinstated by the county commission.

A call for a vote

A coalition of religious and conservative groups maintain that the county commissioners who passed the measure are out of step with their constituents. They say the issue should be decided through a direct vote by the people.

The coalition, called Take Back Miami-Dade, conducted a petition drive, gathering some 51,000 signatures to qualify to place the question on the ballot.

A counter group, called Save Dade, fought the petition drive and is now working to defeat the repeal campaign at the polls.

Gay rights at issue across the US

The struggle in Miami-Dade over gay rights is a microcosm of similar skirmishes under way across the country. In addition to antidiscrimination laws, the issues include whether to recognize same sex marriages and whether domestic partners should be able to participate in health insurance and other job-related benefits enjoyed by married couples.

Votes are scheduled or contemplated later this year in Nevada, Ypsilanti, Michigan, Westbrook, Maine, Tacoma, Wash., and Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Last year similar votes took place in Houston, Miami Beach, and three cities in Michigan: Kalamazoo, Traverse City, and Huntington Woods. Gay rights activists lost in Houston, but won in the other cities.

Each of these campaigns has been important, but activists say none has been as critical as the Miami-Dade effort.

"The 1977 vote in Miami-Dade was not the first-ever antigay ballot measure, but it was the first to get prominent attention, and it was the first that resulted in religious-political extremists copying the tactic and repeating it in communities across America," says Dave Fleisher of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in New York. "The national significance of this particular vote (in Miami-Dade)," he says, "is that we want to end these anti-gay ballot measures where they began."

Battle of grassroots groups

Not likely, say repeal advocates.

"They try to characterize us as backwater bigots, but our side believes in principle" says Mr. LaBarbera. "We are motivated by our core beliefs and they will not just go away."

In addition, he says, grassroots opposition to gay rights remains strong.

"At the local level I don't think there has ever been a greater disconnect between where the media and the cultural elites are and where the average Joe is," LaBarbera says.

Mr. Ketelhohn disagrees. His says there are major differences between the Miami of 1977 and Miami in 2002.

"The gay community is no longer standing alone," he says. "The majority of the community is now standing up and saying, 'We are not going to let any one group in this community be picked on.' "

Mobilizing supporters

Both sides say the outcome will likely depend on which side is best able to mobilize its supporters and appeal to middle-of-the-road voters.

"We have gone door to door and spoken to tens of thousands of voters," Ketelhohn says. "We now have 70,000 voters confirmed who we can count on to vote no on Sept. 10."

LaBarbera says that no matter what the results of the vote, the issue – much like the abortion fight – will not fade away.

"Either way, this thing is coming back," he says. "It might bore a lot of people in the political system, but this issue is going to be around for a long time."

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