Kansas City in the early 1990s saw some of the most contentious fights and outright bigotry in the battle to protect the rights of gays and lesbians.
AIDS and the fear of it were used to justify discrimination against anyone who was or was suspected of being LGBT. The tensions played out in City Council chambers, testing political, religious and even civic ties the likes of which City Hall had rarely experienced.
Eventually, a better understanding of gays and lesbians and a sense of fairness won out. But it took nearly three years.
Kansas City is believed to be the only city to pass civil-rights protections based on sexual orientation and HIV-status at the same time. The measure was approved in 1993.
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Austin R. Williams, a doctoral student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is preparing to chronicle the history in a documentary called “The Ordinance Project.”
For the last month, Williams has been raising the $13,500 necessary to start filming in August. He’s close, at just over $10,000.
As Williams rightly notes, homophobia and the fear of AIDS were once nearly inseparable.
But the Raytown native is also cognizant that he is embarking on documenting this past victory amid current tensions.
President Donald Trump announced a ban on transgender people from military service in a series of tweets. And the Justice Department argued in a court brief that the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not include protections for sexual orientation.
“The Ordinance Project” ought to spark reflection on the issues being debated today.
What will sound out of touch and homophobic in the future?
In the 1990s, myths about how people could contract the AIDS virus were rampant.
People thought nothing of standing in council chambers and linking homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia. Many also made wild claims that if the ordinance passed, schools would be forced to hire gay teachers who would infect classrooms of children with the AIDS virus.
Christian fundamentalists led much of the opposition, often arguing that being gay is a choice and that it’s possible to pray the gay away.
Former Kansas City mayor and now U.S. Rep Emanuel Cleaver drew the ire of LGBT activists and praise from some religious groups when he refused to sign a 1991 proclamation noting Gay Pride Week, saying it would divide the city.
Cleaver later attended a gay pride picnic and established a commission to look at discrimination that the community faced.
Efforts to ban civil-rights protections for gays and lesbians by a local referendum and a statewide constitutional amendment eventually failed.
For many, “The Ordinance Project” will revisit defining moments in their lives, recounting sit-ins and other actions of civil disobedience. Gay people who testified in support of the ordinance, some of whom acknowledged being HIV-positive, risked a lot by being so public.
At a recent fundraiser for the project, archival footage was flashed on the screen at the Tivoli Cinema in Westport. The crowd of nearly 300 grew sober upon seeing the many faces of those who have died of AIDS.
Transgender people weren’t included in protections sought 25 years ago. It’s not that activists didn’t understand the need. They feared that including transgender people would cause the effort to fail.
“The Ordinance Project” began as a research project. It has become far more.
Williams’ approach is focused on listening. He doesn’t assume he knows the story that he will tell.
He has adopted a mantra, one that encapsulates why his project is important in 2017: “This is a story that must be told, and the time to tell it is now.”