New mark in gay pol­i­tics

Shed­ding a con­ser­va­tive past, Palm Springs elects all-LGBTQ coun­cil

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Javier Pan­zar

With its tol­er­ant cul­ture, Mid­cen­tury ar­chi­tec­tural style and lively arts scene, Palm Springs has for decades been a mecca for the LGBTQ com­mu­nity.

The city is ranked first in the state and third in the na­tion among cities with the most same-sex cou­ples per 1,000 house­holds, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of U.S. cen­sus data by the Wil­liams In­sti­tute at the UCLA School of Law.

But now, the city is mark­ing a new mile­stone in gay pol­i­tics as well. When the two new mem­bers of the Palm Springs City Coun­cil are sworn in next month, ev­ery per­son on the panel will be a mem­ber of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity.

Lisa Mid­dle­ton, a trans­gen­der woman, and Christy Hol­stege, a woman who iden­ti­fies as bi­sex­ual, each won about 30% of the city­wide vote to beat four other can­di­dates and fill two va­cant seats on the coun­cil. The pair will join three gay men on the five-per­son body.

It is a his­toric feat — decades in the mak­ing — for the town of 47,000 in the Coachella Val­ley that has slowly shed its con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal iden­tity that de­vel­oped in the Rat Pack era and con­tin­ued in the 1990s.

Ron Oden be­came the first gay per­son elected to the coun­cil in 1995. He made

in­ter­na­tional head­lines eight years later when he be­came the city’s first gay mayor and ush­ered in the coun­cil’s first gay ma­jor­ity.

Mid­dle­ton is also the first trans­gen­der per­son elected to a non­ju­di­cial of­fice in Cal­i­for­nia, ac­cord­ing to the group Equal­ity Cal­i­for­nia.

Although the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, a civil rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, doesn’t keep na­tion­wide data on the makeup of city coun­cils, the Palm Springs coun­cil is be­lieved to be the first in the coun­try to be en­tirely LGBTQ. Rick Zbur, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Equal­ity Cal­i­for­nia, said Palm Springs is the only city coun­cil in Cal­i­for­nia com­posed of all LGBTQ peo­ple.

Mid­dle­ton, a re­tired au­di­tor who worked for the State Com­pen­sa­tion In­sur­ance Fund, joins at least seven other openly trans­gen­der peo­ple elected to pub­lic of­fice across the coun­try last week, ac­cord­ing to the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign.

In Vir­ginia, a trans­gen­der woman, Demo­crat Dan­ica Roem, un­seated an in­cum­bent who spon­sored a bill that would have re­stricted which bath­rooms she could use. Mid­dle­ton called the elec­tions his­toric for trans­gen­der Amer­i­cans.

“We have bro­ken through,” Mid­dle­ton said.

Hol­stege and Mid­dle­ton said iden­tity is­sues never be­came a cen­tral part of the cam­paign, which fo­cused more on en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, the city’s grow­ing home­less­ness pop­u­la­tion and how to tackle loom­ing pen­sion li­a­bil­i­ties.

“We re­ally fo­cused on lo­cal is­sues, we are not run­ning be­cause of those iden­ti­ties,” Hol­stege said. “But it is still his­toric for the move­ment. I do think rep­re­sen­ta­tion mat­ters, and we should con­tinue to be a model city for civil rights.”

Oden said he was pleased to see that vot­ers had no qualms about elect­ing an all-LGBTQ coun­cil.

When he ran for of­fice two decades ago, Oden said he faced dis­crim­i­na­tion as he sought to be­come not only the first gay man but also the first African Amer­i­can elected to the coun­cil.

“I faced it the en­tire time, it wasn’t overt but it was there,” he said. “I am proud of the cit­i­zens of our city who looked be­yond the sur­face and asked is this per­son qual­i­fied.”

Oden said the city has al­ways been a mag­net for gays and les­bians since the 1950s, when celebri­ties would re­treat to the desert for pri­vacy. For decades, the Coachella Val­ley was also pop­u­lar with some of Amer­ica’s lead­ing Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing Pres­i­dent Ford and pub­lish­ing ty­coon Wal­ter An­nen­berg, an ad­vi­sor to Pres­i­dent Rea­gan.

Oden said the desert city at­tracted many peo­ple seek­ing pri­vacy, and that made gays feel wel­comed.

“This was the place [celebri­ties] could come and they could meet and what­ever they did was their busi­ness,” he said. “What hap­pened in Palm Springs, stayed in Palm Springs. Las Ve­gas has stolen the moniker, but it was true of Palm Springs.”

David Wal­lace, au­thor of “A City Comes Out: How Celebri­ties Made Palm Springs a Gay and Les­bian Par­adise,” said many older same­sex cou­ples flocked to the area in the 1970s and 1980s to buy some of the mid-cen­tury homes that are now con­sid­ered ar­chi­tec­tural gems.

“It is re­ally hard to tell how these cul­tural things come about. If a place is friendly peo­ple tend to fol­low that,” he said. “It is like refugees com­ing to a city: if they find a group of peo­ple who make them feel wel­come they keep com­ing.”

That is cer­tainly true of Mid­dle­ton, who moved to Palm Springs in 2011 af­ter liv­ing all over Cal­i­for­nia, in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les, Ven­tura and San Fran­cisco.

She said be­ing a trans­gen­der woman was never an is­sue for her as she climbed the ranks in city pol­i­tics. Not when she ran for a seat on the neigh­bor­hood coun­cil. Not when she served on the plan­ning board.

“Palm Springs is an in­cred­i­bly af­firm­ing and ex­cit­ing place for peo­ple to live,” she said. “I have been wel­come in this town like no other place I have ever lived.”

The city’s trans­for­ma­tion into a LGBTQ strong­hold comes as the Re­pub­li­can Party has lost its edge in the town. Be­tween the two of them, Sonny Bono and later his widow, Mary Bono Mack, rep­re­sented the area in Congress for 18 years un­til Demo­crat Raul Ruiz flipped the seat blue in 2012.

The new Palm Springs City Coun­cil will also be made up en­tirely of Democrats. Many credit that to the LGBTQ com­mu­nity’s growth in the city.

“It is a process that has changed Palm Springs dra­mat­i­cally from the 1950s when it was prob­a­bly one of the red­dest towns in Cal­i­for­nia,” Wal­lace said. “Now it is cer­tainly not that.”

The coun­cil is part of a con­tin­u­ing po­lit­i­cal re­set for the city that started when for­mer Mayor Steve Pougnet de­cided not to seek re­elec­tion in 2015 af­ter his busi­ness deal­ings came un­der scru­tiny. Pougnet and two de­vel­op­ers were charged this year with a com­bined 30 felony counts of cor­rup­tion, in­clud­ing pay­ing and ac­cept­ing bribes, con­flict of in­ter­est, per­jury and con­spir­acy to com­mit bribery.

Pougnet, who is gay, was re­placed by an­other gay man in 2015, re­tired Navy Cmdr. Ron Moon, who ran on a pledge to in­crease trans­parency in city govern­ment. Two vet­eran coun­cil mem­bers de­cided to re­tire, open­ing the seats for Mid­dle­ton and Hol­stege.

Moon and an­other coun­cil­man set up an ethics and trans­parency task force af­ter Pougnet’s ouster to make the city’s busi­ness more open and clamp down on abuse. New poli­cies should be in place by next year.

Mid­dle­ton said she vowed to cham­pion ethics re­forms in the com­ing year and build upon the coun­cil’s ef­forts to in­crease faith in city govern­ment.

“What I in­tend to do is stick to the im­por­tant is­sues of lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment,” she said. “None of those is­sues have any­thing to do with one’s sex­u­al­ity or one’s gen­der iden­tity.”

Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

A STATUE of the late singer-politi­cian Sonny Bono in Palm Springs, whose coun­cil will swear in two LGBTQ mem­bers next month.

Omar Or­nelas The Desert Sun

LISA MID­DLE­TON, left, a trans­gen­der woman, and Christy Hol­stege, a woman who iden­ti­fies as bi­sex­ual, will join three gay men on the five-per­son panel.

Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

PALM SPRINGS trans­formed from “one of the red­dest towns in Cal­i­for­nia” to po­lit­i­cally blue, a writer says.

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