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Mayor's Welcome Letter Wasn't Welcome News

Palm Springs residents were enraged to learn their gay mayor said he was `pleased' to have an anti-homosexual group hold an event.

September 22, 2006|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

PALM SPRINGS — Plans for this Saturday's "Love Won Out" conference, sponsored by a conservative Christian group that believes gays can "overcome" their homosexuality, were irritating enough to many residents in this desert oasis.

After all, Palm Springs has one of the nation's largest percentages of same-sex couples, plays host to high-profile gay oriented events, and has elected gay people to three of the five seats on its City Council.

But many in the community were outraged when the openly gay mayor, Ron Oden, sent conference organizers a letter noting how "pleased" he was that they were holding the event in the area.

Never mind that it's actually in Indian Wells, 20 miles away.

"It's a pleasure to welcome you," the mayor wrote to Focus on the Family, which is holding the conference. "We are so proud to have you here in the Palm Springs area."

The conservative Colorado Springs, Colo., organization teaches that gays and lesbians lead deviant and un-Christian lifestyles and have a choice in their sexual orientation.

It will be the 40th such seminar in the U.S. in the last eight years, and the mother of actress Anne Heche, who had a lesbian relationship with Ellen DeGeneres, is among Saturday's speakers.

The organization, which attributes homosexual inclinations to "development issues" rather than genetics, was delighted to receive the mayor's welcome and promptly trumpeted it to the media.

"We were refreshingly encouraged that here was a city official walking out genuine tolerance," said Melissa Fryrear, director of the group's "Gender Issues" division. "He's public about being a gay man, which made it even more significant that he was showing us so much respect."

Too much respect, say his critics.

The gay community was "completely unified in their outrage" about the mayor's letter, said Claire Jordan Grant, a Palm Springs gay advocate who is organizing a Unity Rally that will ferry busloads of protesters to peacefully picket the conference early Saturday.

"We have a long tradition of everyone getting along in the [Coachella] Valley," Grant said, and the issue is "driving a wedge" between the gay and straight communities.

Councilwoman Ginny Foat, a lesbian, called Oden's letter "unfortunate." She said it wasn't requested by the sponsor, nor a form letter routinely sent to conferences in the area, as some have theorized.

"It was not a mistake," Foat said.

According to Foat, Oden said that he felt if the group members came to Palm Springs and saw all the wonderful people here and all got along, they'd change their mind. Instead, the letter only stirred up latent homophobia, Foat said.

Oden said Thursday that the group had requested a welcome letter months earlier, and that he doesn't regret sending it.

"Not long ago people were saying they didn't want us in their communities," he said. "If we now turn around and say we don't want them, where does it stop?

"If we want the acceptance and understanding of others, it's also important for people to see we're willing to extend the same courtesy to others."

In the letter, according to a copy released by Focus on the Family, the mayor urged participants to "discover all that makes this a great place to live and visit.... We are going to do everything we can to make you want to come back. We'll tempt you with so many things to do and see that you will just have to return."

The debate has kept the Desert Sun's newspaper's website forum buzzing.

John Kleppinger of Rancho Mirage, compared welcoming the conference to welcoming the Ku Klux Klan, confirming his sentiments in a telephone interview.

"I think you would be justifiably angered to give such a reception to a self-professed hate group," he wrote. "Proud and gay is how I was born; it was not a choice and to suggest that this is something that can be cured is an insult to say the least."

But others supported Oden and castigated the critics for being intolerant of people with different moral views.

Conference organizers invited Oden to attend Saturday's event, though group spokeswoman Fryrear said he had not indicated he would come. He was not invited to address the conference.

Fryrear said she expects more than 1,000 people to attend the conference at Southwest Community Church. The promoters chose the area because local church leaders had invited them, and advertised it as being in Palm Springs because the city has more name recognition, Fryrear said.

She said many of those who attend are Christian family members of "those living homosexually." The family members attend "because they want to know better how to show their love to that family member while not condoning their behavior," Fryrear said. "The message of Christianity is that you can retain your religious convictions and agree to disagree with the loved one's practices."

Other participants are "dissatisfied living homosexually" and want to change. Fryrear said she is a former lesbian.

The promotional material for the conference states that participants will learn how to "prevent your child from embracing this destructive way of life" and that "homosexuality is preventable and treatable -- a message routinely silenced today."

Protest organizer Grant said several hundred picketers are expected outside the conference Saturday and plan to carry signs that say, "I love my gay child," "I'm a peacelike parent and proud," and "God made your children as they are, love them as they are."

valerie.reitman@latimes.com

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