Ky. town may be smallest to ban anti-gay discrimination

12:43 PM, Jan 20, 2013   |    comments
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 By: Peter Smith, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier - Journal

VICCO, Ky. -- Mayor Johnny Cummings answered his cellphone with its insistent air-horn ring tone over and over Wednesday morning, juggling his reading glasses, a takeout coffee cup and a succession of cigarettes.


Cummings' most immediate concern, as he worked out of the brick storefront City Hall, was keeping tabs on the waterworks crew as it switched on pumps to prevent overflows amid a persistent downpour.

But Cummings couldn't avoid the inquiries from the media, both in person and by phone, about how this tiny coal-mining community in Eastern Kentucky's Perry County had become the smallest municipality in America known to have approved an ordinance protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.

City commissioners voted 3-1 on Monday to approve ordinances banning discrimination, by employers and by sellers and renters of housing, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as race, religion, age and gender.

Cummings, a fifth-generation resident of Vicco, also finds himself fielding questions about what it's like to be an openly gay mayor in a socially, religiously and politically conservative region of Appalachia.

Cummings sees the Vicco vote as part of a larger effort to revive the city of 334, which has struggled in the more than half-century since the end of its mining boom.

"Kentucky had so many small towns that were just dying and withering away, and Vicco was one of them," Cummings said. "We want to change the reputation of the town. It's always been something that everyone made fun of - just a small, little town, redneck rough and tough."

Cummings would just as soon talk about other ordinances also passed last Monday - imposing a curfew to reduce loitering and expanding zones where alcohol can be sold, in an effort to attract a restaurant.

Cummings would like to talk about how the city has sharply reduced leaks in its once-porous waterlines, balanced its budget and begun plans for a new park and community center to give young people a positive outlet in a region raked by drug abuse.

But Cummings acknowledges he was pleased that "the gay mayor and the heterosexual commissioners" were able to have a lengthy and respectful deliberation before Monday's vote. Part of the debate was whether other city efforts at revitalization would be eclipsed.

"It was just something that was right," he said. "We never thought it would be such a hoopla."

Was it needed?

Tim Engle, the sole commissioner to vote against the ordinance, said he felt that voting for the measure would amount to endorsing homosexuality.

"I'm a Christian, and I don't believe in that lifestyle," he said.

But he also said it wasn't necessary. Nobody is discriminating, he said, saying that in his own music recording and retail business - just around the corner from Cummings' hair salon - "I'm 100 percent fair with everybody." And he considers Cummings a friend.

"When my dad died, Johnny was the first one on my mother's doorstep," he said.

Truman Hurt, a retired coal miner and a Pentecostal lay preacher living on the outskirts of Vicco, said he hasn't talked to anyone in favor of the measure. Hurt said he disagrees on this issue with liberal activists with whom he has worked for years, attempting to hold coal companies accountable to health and environmental regulations.

"What they're really against is the Bible," he said of ordinance proponents, as he sat by his window-lit Bible, open to the book of John.

"I have no problem being fair to people, but this is well beyond fairness," he said, saying it supersedes "the right of a business owner to say no to anyone. That includes me. ... That's what freedom's all about."

Protection still rare

Until Vicco, only three Kentucky cities - Louisville, Lexington and Covington - had adopted similar ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Henderson repealed a short-lived one in 2001.

The Vicco vote came out of contact between Eastern Kentucky and other statewide gay-rights activists who began promoting such ordinances in nearby Berea and Richmond, said Chris Hartman, spokesman for the Fairness Coalition.

The Kentucky heartland may not seem promising territory for such measures.

Perry County voted for Republican Mitt Romney by a 4-1 margin in the 2012 presidential election, with similarly lopsided results in much of rural Kentucky. A defining issue in the campaign was Democratic President Barack Obama's support for expanded gay rights.

But Hartman said people in many smaller communities "feel they're already practicing the values a fairness law reflects, and so it's been exciting to hear that over and over." The ultimate goal, Hartman said, is for a statewide law.

But Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, said there "doesn't seem to be any kind of epidemic of discrimination" requiring such laws.

While religious organizations are exempt, he cited the case of a Christian business owner in Lexington who faces a discrimination complaint for refusing to print T-shirts for a gay-advocacy group.

Providing a recourse

But Tony Vaughn, chief of Vicco's one-man police department, said it makes sense to enact such laws to give people a legal recourse if discrimination does occur.

"Until people start stepping up to the plate, there's no action," he said, lauding Vicco commissioners for having "enough brass about them to be on the forefront."

Cummings said he hopes the measure will project a progressive image to employers that might help revitalize Vicco, which is in a valley between steep cliffs about a dozen miles' drive southeast from the county seat of Hazard.

From the 1930s to 1950s, coal camps dotted the mountainsides and brought thousands to its once-thriving business district to shop, drink, dance and, often, brawl. The city even took its name from a onetime major employer, the Virginia Iron Coal and Coke Co.

But its population is about half what it was at its formal incorporation in 1964, and even then a Courier-Journal profile described many familiar challenges - a need to attract businesses and residents and improve public works.

Now Vicco has a half-dozen businesses - including a bank, music store and Cummings' hair salon - as well as three churches and no stoplights on or near its modest Main Street.

Many locals work outside of town in the coal and health care industries, Cummings said.

The 50-year-old mayor - who traces his local roots to great-great-grandparents who operated a hotel - said that when he was a teenager, "everyone knew I was gay before I did."

"There was always some name calling, but not that much," he said. "That's probably the main reason I stayed."

He spent some time in California and South Carolina, but "I've always come back." More than two decades ago, he and a business partner located the Scissors hair salon on Main Street.

Cummings has long been involved in civic activities such as helping organize holiday celebrations, serving on the city commission and getting elected mayor last year.

"I've been told I live in a dream world," he added. But, "I think if you do what you think's right and treat other people fairly, people respect that."

'I'm all for fairness'

At Your Place restaurant, a home-style diner just up the highway from central Vicco, owner Evalee Bowling said locals are more concerned about the current economic struggles of the coal industry than about the ordinances. But she had no problems with the measures.

"I'm all for fairness," she said, adding of gay people, "If they come in here, I treat them like any other customer."

Diner patron Russell Akemon of Hazard, who formerly lived near the center of Vicco, said he didn't see the ordinances as controversial.

"I don't think anybody has anything against them," he said. "What they do is their business, I guess. I don't particularly agree with it. That don't make me dislike them."

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