All-LGBT City Council Makes History in California

PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA - As a gay man teaching in Northern California, Greg Gilman never felt like he could be active in local politics out of fear over any backlash related to his sexual identity, including even losing his job.

When he retired and moved to Palm Springs about a decade ago, Gilman, now 71, found many men and women of his generation who'd experienced the same thing and now were ready to make some noise, maybe not in Sacramento or Washington, DC, but at least, as Gilman did, with their local neighborhood councils.

"I got to Palm Springs and realized you can open your mouth here and people will listen and you don't have to be afraid of the consequences," Gilman said.

The city, which has long prided itself as a gay-friendly place for locals and tourists, reached a new milestone this year. When two new members of the Palm Springs City Council are sworn in Wednesday, all five members will be part of the LGBT community, a first for any city in the country.

Locally, this fact was hardly noted during the fall campaign. That's largely because Palm Springs has a history of LGBT leadership. The last three mayors have been gay men and the City Council has included three gay men and a lesbian since 2015.

But the November election results, which included Lisa Middleton being the first transgender person elected to a non-judicial office in California, did bring international attention to the city of less than 50,000 people also known as the place where entertainer Sonny Bono, a Republican, entered politics in the 1980s.

Along with Middleton, the new Council includes Mayor Rob Moon and Council members JR Roberts and Geoff Kors, all gay men. Christy Holstege, the second new member, identifies as bisexual and is married to a man.

Gilman helped Middleton get her start at the neighborhood level before she went on to lead a city-wide organization and then run for City Council. He's glad the campaign was about things other than the "gay issue" and was thrilled about the idea that Palm Spring might serve as a role model for other places.

"We're going to see what talent has been hidden for so long, and what talent could come from this in the future, if we just let people say what they want and be accepted," he said.

Many other residents in their 60s and 70s felt the same way, especially considering the prejudiced attitudes they experienced earlier in their lives and the intolerance they still feel in the current national climate.

When Ronni Sanlo came out as a lesbian in Florida in 1979, she lost custody of her two children, ages 3 and 6.

"I've been a raving activist even since then," she said.

Sanlo, 70, went on to work in LGBT outreach at universities, eventually retiring from UCLA. While in Los Angeles, she first visited Palm Springs on a trip for Gay Pride weekend.

In talking about the new City Council, Sanlo noted that other leaders elected elsewhere in the country helped make it possible. There was Richard Heyman, who was elected in Key West, Florida, in 1979, eventually serving as mayor. There was Nancy Wechsler, a lesbian who served on the City Council in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 1970s. And of course, there was outspoken San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was killed in 1978.

When Sanlo sees Palm Springs and its all-LGBT City Council, "my heart fills up," she said. But she's quick to note that while gay marriage is legal nationwide, there are still places where someone can be fired after their wedding announcement appears in the paper because an employer won't accept them.

Vicki Oltean moved to Palm Springs in 1980 to be close to her partner's parents. Back then, she said, there may have a been some gay resorts but the city had a long way to go toward building the image it has today.

Now the city's director of Parks and Recreation, Oltean will turn 64 later this month. She's worked under many City Councils and many mixes of gay and straight leaders.

"I don't look at the Council as what their sexual orientation is or may be," she said. "It's a matter of who the people are that are representing our city and being inclusive of everybody."

Even with a level of acceptance not seen in many other places, Palm Springs has had to face anti-gay incidents. In 2015, gay activist George Zander and his husband were beaten while walking downtown. Two men pleaded guilty to hate crime charges stemming from the attack.

And just eight years ago, the city was marred by controversy, and its reputation tainted, when the police force was accused of targeting gay men in a sex sting in the Warm Sands neighborhood that led to 19 arrests. The chief of police ultimately resigned.

Kim Kieler, 64, is a Canadian who moved to Palm Spring with her American partner in 2013. As a protest to Donald Trump, she said she won't become a U.S. citizen until he is no longer president.

Kieler said it's one thing to see gay people elected mayor in major cities, but for a small place like Palm Springs to have an all-LGBT council, "It certainly is breathtaking."

"Even in Canada, in our 20s and 30s, we didn't think about entering politics," she said.

Gary Dorothy, 71, came to Palm Springs in 1999 for a more economical alternative to Santa Barbara. The natural beauty of the area and older gay population helped with the decision, he said.

"I love this town, and I appreciate the tremendous impact that gay people have had protecting and enhancing this town," Dorothy said. "It's great to see that we can have a government that reflects the power of our impact in the community."

As a photographer with a gallery in downtown Palm Springs, Dorothy said he'll be paying close attention to how City Council members continue to deal with the scandal-plagued downtown redevelopment and work to give residents confidence that their city government is open and honest.

The city's growing homeless population is a primary concern of Dorothy's, who said he wants to see the Council work on making sure all residents, not just gay people, have basic opportunities around things like housing and employment.

"Just because somebody's gay doesn't necessarily make them a good leader," he said. "I hope all of them will rise to the challenges of their office."

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