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COLUMN ONE

Troubled Waters at Gay Oasis

A whisper campaign painted the Palm Springs mayor as a homophobe. Now the gay community seeks to repair the self-inflicted damage.

June 04, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALM SPRINGS — The very soul of this desert oasis was said to be at stake.

This spring brought allegations that the mayor had turned on Palm Springs' well-heeled, fun-loving gay community. In his handpicked City Council candidate, some gay activists saw the makings of a political coup that would let religious fundamentalists turn Palm Springs into a very staid, and very straight, town.

The divisive election that ensued is over, and the coup, if there ever was one, was a flop. Most here, including many gay leaders, agree that dire warnings of Palm Springs plunging back into the 1950s were as fleeting as the dust devils that swirl, then vanish, over the Coachella Valley floor.

But charges of gay-bashing are easier raised than dismissed here. Now Palm Springs is left with a nasty little image problem, arguably of the gay community's own making.

Some gay business organizations are quietly meeting to discuss whether they should embark on a public relations campaign to ensure that Palm Springs does not lose its status as an international gay tourism mecca. The city's Human Rights Commission is preparing to hold a community forum. And Mayor William G. Kleindienst has agreed to sit for an interview with a prominent gay magazine in an effort to smooth the waters.

Even as the City Council rose as one from the dais last month, hands clasped and raised high in a show of unity, it was clear that the wounds will be slow to heal.

"I hear that people at Australian Mardi Gras parties are talking about how Palm Springs is anti-gay," said Denise Goolsby, a lesbian and chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission. "This really didn't have to happen. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It took on a life of its own."

Gays make up, by some estimates, a third of Palm Springs' population of about 43,000. The city is close to the nation's first gay retirement community. Gay veterans have their own memorial, and the Palm Springs area--really a cluster of small towns--is home to 30 resorts that cater to gays and lesbians and a new housing development where gay couples recently moved into 84 of 90 homes.

All those gains gave activists a sense that they had become a part of the establishment. And yet, some began to feel threatened last fall.

Two of five City Council seats were open, and after the November election, Mayor Kleindienst convened an otherwise unremarkable meeting to swear in the winners. But then City Council member Jim Jones suddenly resigned, citing health problems, the council was left with an unexpected opening.

Councilman Ron Oden, who is openly gay, immediately proposed giving the seat to the woman who had captured the third-highest vote tally in the election. That was tradition in Palm Springs, said Oden, who was first appointed to the City Council seven years ago in similar fashion.

The woman, Deyna Hodges, had previously served 12 years on the City Council and was seen as a friend of the gay community. She had been a key backer of the successful drive to secure domestic partner benefits for city employees.

But the mayor, who did not return repeated calls requesting comment for this story, said it would be unfair to simply appoint Hodges to the seat. Instead, he said he would back local accountant Michael McCulloch, forcing a special election this spring, pitting Hodges against McCulloch.

Speculation began percolating that Kleindienst was trying to gain a council majority for a more conservative vision of Palm Springs. He already had one ardent supporter on the five-member City Council in architect Chris Mills.

As the special election approached this spring, gay leaders were busy preparing for the annual White Party, a so-called circuit party that has drawn an estimated 30,000 gays from across the world. This year, it happened to coincide with the Dinah Shore event, nominally attached to a women's professional golf tournament and considered something of a lesbian companion to the White Party.

When Kleindienst declined to sign proclamations welcoming the parties, the floodgates opened.

"The telephone game began. The whispers. And then it got bigger and bigger," said Goolsby, the longtime owner of the Bee Charmer Inn, a women's hotel, before she sold it recently.

"All of a sudden, 'the White Party is not coming back to Palm Springs' and 'the mayor is anti-gay.' All of a sudden, it's a 'right-wing conspiracy.'"

Gay activists noted that the mayor attends Desert Chapel, a local church associated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. According to the Foursquare Gospel's Web site, the organization is opposed to abortion rights and the teaching of evolution and is opposed to homosexuality.

The ties of the purported new majority of the City Council to the Desert Chapel (whose pastor, Fred Donaldson, did not return phone calls seeking comment) did not end there.

Mills, seen as the mayor's right-hand man, worked on the architecture of the chapel's sanctuary and coached a junior high girl's basketball team there.

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