- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It’s a Bible Belt state, almost certain to toughen its prohibition of same-sex “marriage” this month. A major candidate for governor has called homosexuality evil, and a national homosexual magazine branded Alabama the worst state for homosexuals.

So why does Howard Bayless want to stay?

His roots are in the state, he says. So are his friends. He’s partial to the congenial neighborhood in Birmingham that he and other homosexuals helped rescue from decline.

“This is where I’ve carved out a niche for myself,” says Mr. Bayless, who has spent most of his 40 years in Alabama. “We’ve created our community here, and I don’t want to leave. I’d rather do the extra work of making my neighbors realize who and what I am.”

Leader of Equality Alabama, a statewide homosexual rights group, Mr. Bayless is one of many with the same conviction. In Mobile, Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, Alabama’s homosexuals — like their counterparts throughout the U.S. heartland — are slowly, steadily gaining more confidence and finding more acceptance.

Homosexual rights causes still endure their share of setbacks — amendments defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman have passed in 19 states and Alabama is poised to become No. 20 by an overwhelming vote Tuesday.

But in the long view, there has been slow, powerful momentum building in the other direction: the quashing of anti-sodomy laws; the extension of anti-bias codes to cover homosexuals; the adoption of domestic-partner policies by countless companies. Recent polls suggest opposition to same-sex “marriage” has peaked, and a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning it is expected to fall far short of the required two-thirds support when the Senate votes on it this month.

“What Americans see increasingly is there’s no negative impact on their own lives to have gays and lesbians living out in the open,” says Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “They go from an abstract idea to a real person with a real name and a real story. That makes all the difference.”

Kim McKeand and Cari Searcy experience that phenomenon daily in Mobile, where they live openly as a lesbian couple raising a son, Khaya, whom Miss McKeand gave birth to in September.

“We’re out to everybody,” says Miss Searcy, 30. “We know all the neighbors. Everyone else on our street is straight. They say ‘Hey.’ They all wanted to come over and see the baby.”

The couple met at college in Texas and moved to Mobile five years ago with $1,000 between them and no jobs, but their careers have blossomed. Miss Searcy works for a video production company, Miss McKeand for a broadcaster that provides domestic partner health benefits, which covers both of them.

“I know we have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way already,” Miss Searcy says.

They love Mobile — but might consider leaving if Miss Searcy’s application to become Khaya’s adoptive parent is rejected in the courts.

“How can they say that we’re not a family?” Miss Searcy asks as she cradles Khaya in her arms.

The courts weren’t accommodating to social worker Jill Bates, who lives in Birmingham with her lesbian partner. She lost custody of her daughter, now 16, to her ex-husband after a legal battle in which her sexual orientation was held against her.

Yet Mrs. Bates remains undaunted.

“One thing that gives me hope is seeing all my daughter’s friends, even some who go to a fundamentalist church,” Mrs. Bates says. “To them, it’s just so not a big deal.”

There are other signs of acceptance. An openly lesbian candidate, Patricia Todd, has a strong chance of winning a seat in Alabama’s Legislature this year — that would be a first. Mobile’s recent Pride Parade drew upbeat local news coverage and only a handful of protesters. Homosexual-straight alliances are active at most universities; in the cities, if not the suburbs and small towns, homosexual-friendly churches are proliferating.

Those trends hearten homosexuals and their allies, but concern Alabamans who support the same-sex “marriage” ban and believe homosexuality is sinful.

They are dismayed that same-sex partnerships are recognized in three New England states, they’ve resented the empathic portrayals of homosexuality on “Will & Grace” and in “Brokeback Mountain” — and they wonder whether states such as Alabama can resist what the Rev. Tom Benz calls “the erosion of traditional values.”

“We’re here in the Bible Belt, but all these things that happen around us affect us,” says Mr. Benz, who combines mission work in Ukraine with presidency of the conservative Alabama Clergy Council. “There’s a feeling here of, ‘I want my country back.’ ”

Mr. Benz lives in Millbrook, a suburb of Montgomery, the capital. One of his political allies, from the nearby town of Eclectic, is Donna Goodwin, a school board employee who disputes the notion that familiarity with homosexuality leads to support of homosexual rights.

“I have a lesbian cousin. I can continue to love her without approving of the way she leads her life,” Mrs. Goodwin says. “We see each other three or four times a year. We hug. We find out how each other is doing — but I don’t ask her about her girlfriend.”

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