Gay in Galesburg Revisited

by Norm Winick and Mike Kroll

A normally non-controversial commission of the City of Galesburg has caused a debate to erupt locally that's receiving national attention. The New York Times reportedly mentioned it; the liberal People For The American Way has called residents from Washington asking them to talk to their Councilmember. They say they've taken action because the religious right was mobilizing on the other side.

It all surrounds a Galesburg Human Relations Commissions recommendation that discrimination on the basis of sexual preference should be made illegal in Galesburg. They City Council votes Monday.

Councilmembers have heard a wide variety of opinions on the subject from all but the one group affected. The gay and lesbian community in Galesburg hasn't been vocal on the issue; they were not involved in preparing the ordinance nor in arguing for it at the commission. Yet, it's their rights being defended and attacked.

That's because the vast majority of homosexuals in Galesburg refuse to identify themselves. The fear of retribution and physical attack runs strong among the many we talked to. So does their emotional support for the ordinance change.

The gay people we interviewed all requested anonymity; they included professional people as well as blue collar workers. They were dissimilar in most aspects of their personal life except for their sexual preference and their unwavering support for including this protection as municipal law. Here, in their own words, are the thoughts of some gay folks who live among us.

"Galesburg has come so far from its original root of tolerance. I would like to think that Galesburg can be a more tolerant place given its progressive history. Knox College was the first college in the state to give degrees to women and to blacks. The City was founded by abolitionists at a time when that was clearly unpopular. I wish our leaders of today could regain the sense of moral vision which was once the hallmark of this community."

"I expect the words 'gay,' 'lesbian' and 'homosexual' have never before been openly uttered before the Galesburg City Council in session. I have got to think this is a healthy development. Isn't this a fairness issue which is good for the entire Galesburg community?"

"What is now happening in Galesburg is not part of any outside influence as has been suggested. The current movement in Galesburg isn't even the product of any organized effort by gays or lesbians within the community. Instead you have one tolerant man who comes to Galesburg and can't understand how anyone else could fail to see the justness of expanding the existing civil rights protections. He naively advanced this notion without realizing how vocal the opposition would be. To a very large extent it is amazing just how far this process has already come."

"I can't understand why more people don't see this as a 'quality of life' issue. We want the ability to live a life with more confidence and dignity."

"To me, an ordinance like this is a sign of intelligent government­­ that a community is willing to move on to the 21st century. Passing such an ordinance is standing up for what is scientifically valid. It is challenging people on their bigotries based only on mythology."

"Until the straight community can get over its fears there is little hope of raising a generation of tolerant children. If a child is taught early on all of the false stereotypes of homosexuality, why should we ever expect them to take the risk of actually getting to know someone who is openly homosexual? There are thus many professions where being open is just not an option."

"While there are a good number of gays and lesbians living in Galesburg, there really is not an existing gay community in any real or physical sense. We remain hidden just a much from each other as from the community as a whole."

"What this says about a place is 'who do the people want to live in their community?' On the face of it, it says we want to discriminate. The reality is that passing this ordinance is an affirmation, not of a lifestyle, but of people."

"It is an issue in this society; it is an issue in many societies. It's unfair to make it an issue.The bigotry is not based on any scientific data. Homosexuality is not a choice; it's determined early in life. People who are gay are no more likely to have psychological problems than society in general. Studies overwhelmingly affirm that gay people have less risk of engaging in undesirable behaviors like pedophilia than straight people. Most of the rhetoric comes from a basis of ignorance of who gay and lesbian people really are. It is impossible for the abusively intolerant to accept that we are just like them in all but two respects: our sexuality and our ability to accept others. Beside the obvious risks of challenging the inflammatory and untrue statements of our detractors there is also the nagging feeling, 'Why should I give such an intolerant individual the attention?' When someone refuses to come to know homosexuals as individuals they can never really separate reality from the many false stereotypes which permeate their rhetoric."

"People on the right like to talk about family values. I moved back here from a much more comfortable life on the west coast to care for my elderly father. I know lots of gay people ho care for their parents and grandparents and send nieces and nephews to college­­ and we're the ones accused of not having family values."

"I do not feel good at all about this place. I do not feel comfortable here. I have felt comfortable other places. The feeling in other places is that you will be judged on who you are rather than your sexuality."

"Despite the fear that I and other gays constantly experience, I would never say that Galesburg is any worse than other midwestern cities. Most gay people on the coasts have written off the Midwest and the South as acceptable places to live."

"I find it very hard to estimate the size of the gay community in Galesburg. Our fears of exposure force us to hide our homosexuality even from other homosexuals within Galesburg. It is amazing how difficult it is even for other gays to recognize a fellow homosexual who works hard to remain 'in the closet.'"

"A lot of us feel the need to put up a false facade to hide our true identity. The constant need for deception is a very debilitating way in which to live. Some gay people I know here are even married and have kids."

"Fear of the consequences of discovery force homosexuals away from a life true to themselves and their partner. It becomes impossible to live your life in a way that fosters dignity and self respect. Efforts to deny the existence of homosexuality leads to circumstances where homosexuals can't lead normal lives and foster the continuation of negative stereotypes."

"Inclusion of everyone in a given community is the recipe for success."

"Many gay people know of the effects of gay discrimination first hand as they have frequently been perpetrators of it themselves as a cover."

"One of the saddest things is when I go to a gay bar in Peoria or the Quad Cities and see people who used to live in Galesburg."

"We shouldn't be forced to move out of town or to Chicago or San Francisco in order to live our lives without undue fear of discovery and reprisal. As someone who was raised in this area I shouldn't have to leave everything I know to live somewhere else simply because of the prejudices of others. I've lived in places where I felt like a normal person. I don't feel that way here. In Galesburg every newcomer is treated as an outsider for some period of time. A gay is an outsider forever­­ even if he was born and raised here."

"This is a very difficult community to live in. We're victimized by a bad economy; there's lots of depression, substance abuse, especially alcohol and tobacco."

"Big cities are developing huge 'gay ghettos.' Those people didn't emerge from nowhere. They came from places like Galesburg."

"When I was in an advanced English class at Galesburg High School several years ago, a black girl answered a question that she spent 85 percent of her time thinking about being black. It shocked others in the class. Not me; I can relate to that."

"To this day the opportunities still exist for gays to be physically harassed and challenged on the streets of Galesburg. There is a constant fear that someone might just assault you solely because you are gay."

"You don't seek people out for counseling after being harassed or intimidated much less pursue legal remedies. I can't be confident how the Galesburg Police Department would handle such an incident."

"I have been denied the opportunity to even look at an apartment because I was one of two men seeking to rent it. Apparently our status as gays was assumed because we sure didn't declare it."

"I know of someone working in a highly responsible position at one of Galesburg largest employers who is scared to death of coming out. Despite their exemplary job performance many homosexuals fear for their jobs if their employer or fellow employees discover their secret."

"Galesburg is not a generally tolerant community. People in this community can't even tolerate those in the community who are themselves tolerant. Why should we expect them to show tolerance to an openly gay person?"

"I'm not wealthy enough to simply say I'm willing to take the risk of coming out and still expecting to support myself in Galesburg."

"As a consequence of the job insecurities most gay and lesbians face they are very self-selective in choosing professions. You try to select careers where your lifestyle presents the least potential risk of first discovery and second reprisal."

"If you want to truly understand the daily obstacles forced upon homosexuals in this community consider the effect of this status on any of the numerous regular business dealing people face. Try renting an apartment, buying a house or getting a loan. Look at how the benefit plans of most employers discriminate against our partners. We have even been refused service in area bars and restaurants. These intolerant attitudes are hardly conducive to the kind of economic development this town claims to be seeking."

One of the arguments advanced in opposition to this proposed ordinance change is based on economic development­­ that it will force businesses to change the way they operate unfairly. That just isn't the case. We contacted every major employer in Galesburg and, without exception, they claim not to discriminate against gays or lesbians at all. John Guiste, who does the hiring for the City of Galesburg, said, "We have no policy. I don't ask and it's none of my business. The only thing I would say is that the federal law covering sexual harassment applies in all situations and I will enforce it as necessary."

Knox College's Rita Sprague says their policy "specifically addresses the issue. We have had this policy over ten years and have never seen it to cause a problem."

Walt Kidder, store Manager at Wal-Mart, was more direct: "If you can do the job, nothing else matters." Jack Svada at NAEIR said essentially the same thing: "The only restriction we would put on any potential employee relates to the ability to perform the job." Answers like those were typical from dozens of major employers in all sectors.

The gay workers we talked to weren't quite so convinced of the level of tolerance: "In many cases the apparently understanding and tolerant views of the human resources person at a company are hardly reflective of the views held by the executives of that company."

That seems to be changing at many big corporations, though. "Most successful national corporations are actively protecting gay employees because they recognize that it is good business. The one stereotype that seems to be true is that gays are workaholics."

Another problem addressed by our panelists was the problem of growing up gay in Galesburg. "Just imaging growing up gay and spending your whole childhood and adolescence hearing from important adults how disgusting it is to be homosexual. How much self worth and dignity do you suppose that fosters in our youth? The high school administrators don't deal with this issue at all. There is no one for a homosexual high school student to confide in or speak with here in Galesburg. This is a terrible circumstance in which to mature into one's sexual identity. If the educators of this community are so unenlightened why should a teenager expect to be treated with respect and dignity by anyone else in this town?"

Barry Swanson, Assistant Principal at Galesburg High School says those concerns are unfounded. "I'd be very disappointed in the staff if that were the case. There is a vehicle in place for our students to seek counseling. We want to help every child deal with whatever problem they may be confronted with."

While much of the rhetoric surrounding this debate comes from the people least affected by its outcome, the gay community of Galesburg knows that everyone's talking about them­­ and they don't generally like what they hear.

Galesburg's history of tolerance will be put to the test Monday night. At least one gay individual indicated hope that passing this ordinance might be the first step towards his eventually deciding to come "out." Then everyone will see that "just maybe I'm not the same person many in society think I am."

We want to hear from others, gay and straight, in other parts of the country who have thoughts about this issue and how gay life in Galesburg compares to their community. Send us email.

This article posted to Zephyr online January 30, 1997
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