Sister Truly Fierce of the Abbey of the Brew City Sisters, an offshoot of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, speaks in favor of an LGBT Center in Racine on Tuesday night at the City Council meeting. Alderman Jim Kaplan, who tried to delay the proposal, sits in the background. Sister Fierce said after the meeting her job was to "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable."
Bruce Joffe sat in the audience of Tuesday night's City Hall meeting with a transexual nun watching his back and hostile opponents outside the door.
The Carthage College professor was there to gain the city's blessing to open a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual Community Center on Junction Street in Racine's Uptown. Surrounded by supporters and opponents, the night unfolded into a surreal combination of theatrics, Bible-thumping indignation, open-hearted appeals, questionable political manuevering and, for Joffe, a happy ending.
But it was still a brutal night for the audience. First, three inches of snow made it tough just to get to City Hall. Then, the council decided to jabber for two hours on allowing a Douglas Avenue gas station to sell alcohol (they voted no) and then on extending a checkout program for buying kegs (they voted to extend the program six months). A bad sign came early in the night when the council debated for five minutes on whether to extend the public comment period 15 minutes. They defeated the proposal for a longer session, which didn't matter because all of the comments were read on time.
Joffe spoke during the public comment period on his proposal for the LGBT Center. The idea came to him shortly after moving with his partner from Virginia to Racine. They were interested in meeting other gay couples and posted an ad on Craig's List.
"We weren't interested in sex," Joffe said in an interview outside of the meeting. "We specifically said, 'This is not a sex ad.'"
Thirty-eight people responded to their friend request, and the idea for a community center was born. Joffe found the building in Racine's proposed Uptown Artist Relocation District and just needed City Council approval to move forward.
The proposal met resistance. The JT blogs lit up against the center and a local radio host tried to rally city clergy against the proposal. On Tuesday night, a handful of people spoke against the proposal on religious grounds that crossed into flat out intolerance.
"Now I know I'm Alice in wonderland," said one woman who spoke after supporters of the center. "Is this a good thing for our community? In San Francisco it's been a nightmare."
She went on to compare the proposed center to mass-murderer Jeffrey Dahmer and America-bashing, and said the center made her "sick."
"We need to show love for these people through Christ, through Jesus," she said.
Another woman threatened the council with God's wrath. "The way you vote you'll have to answer to the Lord," she said.
Joffe's comments tried to focus the issue on the government business at hand, namely approving the conditional-use permit for the center. The building was already zoned for use as a community center, and the permit basically required the owners to follow ordinances, put up a nice sign and clean the building's facade. Joffe noted after the meeting that gay people would, of course, clean up the building. "Our population expects better than that," he said.
But in his words to the council, Joffe noted that four high school girls had called him after learning about the center to tell him they needed a safe place to go. He also had the support of two local churches, the library and UW-Parkside, which may make grant money available to the center.
"This is not mythology," he said. "This is not Alice in Wonderland."
As the council droned on about other issues, Joffe stepped into the hall for a brief interview. A woman overheard the conversation and yelled at him for five minutes about "lifestyle choices" and how race was a different issue than sexuality. The verbal attacks only ended after Joffe returned to the council chambers.
The council took up the item as one of the last on its agenda. Alderman Jim Kaplan lead a subtle, if obvious, attack on the proposal. The strategy: delay.
Kaplan argued that the LGBT Center didn't fit with the city's plans to relocate artists into Uptown. Apparently, gay people and the arts are a bad match.
When that argument didn't work, Kaplan and few others went to the old fallback of parking. (Note to readers: If you're ever trying to kill a building project, bring up the parking issue. When it suits their interests, elected officials love to worry about where people put their cars.)
Kaplan's strategy almost worked. The council voted 8-5 against referring the item back to committee - a time-killing death trap that would have turned a simple issue into a community free-for-all. Credit to Alderman Greg Helding on this point. When discussion started to stray into issues of morality, he brought the debate back to the simple decision of a permit. Mayor Gary Becker, who runs the meeting, also did little to hide his distaste for the discussion. While professional, he also abruptly pushed the issue through.
The council voted 9-4 in favor of granting the conditional-use permit. Kaplan, along with Aldermen Q.A. Shakoor, Ron Hart and Michael Shields, voted against the proposal. Shakoor said during the debate that the issue needed more public discussion. Hart and Shields didn't add much more than their vote to the discussion.
Work begins on the 1,750-square-foot center in January or February, said Joffe, who already has contractors lined up for the project. Rattled by his encounters at the meeting, he said he's now worried someone will burn down the building.
"I'll be overinsuring the building," Joffe said. "I just hope nobody gets hurt."