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In Kentucky coal country, a vote to stop bias against gays

The town of Vicco, population 334, voted last month to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Now it finds itself in a spotlight of sorts.

February 09, 2013|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Vicco, Ky., population 334, last month became the smallest town in the country to pass an ordinance banning discrimination against homosexuals.
Vicco, Ky., population 334, last month became the smallest town in the country… (David Zucchino, Los Angeles…)

VICCO, Ky. — Johnny Cummings grew up gay in this faded coal town, the son of a miner. He likes to joke that he didn't know he was gay until people around town told him he was.

Now 50, Cummings is the mayor of Vicco, population 334. He's Mayor Johnny in the mornings. In the afternoons he styles hair at his salon, Scissors, a few steps from the storefront Town Hall.

On Jan. 14, at the mayor's urging, Vicco's commissioners discussed an ordinance to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, "real or perceived." As recorded in town secretary Kitty Anderton's minutes, everybody "started debating back and forth and asking questions."

Three and a half hours later, on a 3-1 vote, Vicco became the smallest town in America to outlaw discrimination against homosexuals.

For Cummings and the three commissioners, the vote was no monument to civic courage, no civil rights breakthrough in conservative coal country. It was merely "the right thing to do," said the mayor, who has no vote.

It's about time, said Claude Branson Jr., 58, a mullet-haired commissioner and retired coal miner. "Discrimination just don't go no more," he said. "Times are changing. You've got to change with them."

Commissioner Joel Coots, 59, a retired coal mine inspector, shrugged and said: "I don't believe in hating anybody."

Commissioner Jimmy Slone, a silver-bearded former coal miner and a man of few words, said quietly: "I believe everybody should have the right to live the way they want."

Some residents consider the act a blasphemous affront to Christian values, the commissioners allowed. But in a measure of the growing tolerance in this remote Bible Belt region, no one has complained to them. "Anybody who doesn't like it keeps it to themselves," Branson said.

Town leaders hope the ordinance helps revive Vicco and softens its image as "a tough town full of hard-drinking rednecks," as the mayor puts it. And it wouldn't hurt, they say, if their vote prompted the rest of the country to reconsider archaic stereotypes of Appalachia as backward and bigoted.

Since the vote, Cummings' cellphone, with its blaring air-horn ring tone, has sounded day and night with calls from around the country. Heartfelt thank-yous from young gay men and women have brought tears to his eyes. The positive response has been gratifying, he said, although "one guy wanted to tar and feather me."

Cummings, a fourth-generation Vicco native, has fielded three offers from cable and TV networks to star in a reality TV show. He says he'll leave it up to the commissioners, and would donate any proceeds to the town.

Vicco once had a gun range and several bars. Today it has no bars, no pool halls, no shooting range — not even a restaurant. Its main income is from sales of town water. Nestled in a narrow valley between towns named Happy and Red Fox, "we're just a little ol' spot in the road," Coots said.

Cummings wants to build a community center, a park, and a building to be leased out for a restaurant and a nightclub. Expanding the zone for alcohol sales was the first issue at the Jan. 14 meeting. Afterward, the minutes reveal, "Claude made a motion to adopt the Fairness Coalition Ordinance and Jimmy seconded."Vicco thus became the smallest of 166 cities and towns across the nation that have adopted such ordinances.

Cummings, a heavy smoker who says he drinks five pots of coffee a day, has helped shave down the town's $280,000 debt since volunteering to replace the previous mayor, who resigned nine months ago. No one else wanted the job.

The mayor said he'd never stopped to count the number of gay people in town, but he could think right off of two gay couples. Coots said he discovered years later that a close school friend and the girl he took to the prom are both gay. Branson said his attitude toward gays was "kind of bad" in his younger days, but he's a more tolerant man now.

Not that gays have been under attack in Vicco. Cummings said the only time he remembered being physically threatened was years ago by toughs at a high school football game.

His friend Tony Vaughn forced them to back off. Recently, Cummings made Vaughn the town's part-time police chief and awarded him the tiny mayor's office.

The commissioners say they respect Tim Engle, the lone commissioner to vote no. Actually, Engle first voted yes but then, as the minutes document, "Tim stated that due to his religion that he had to vote no."

Down at the mayor's hair salon, Anna Napier, who has trusted her hair to Cummings for 18 years, said she was conflicted about the ordinance. Cummings said sweetly: "You're a good Christian woman. What do you really think?"

"Well," Napier said, "I can't judge because one day I'll be judged myself."

Would she have voted yes? "I'd rather not say," she replied.

At Town Hall, the commissioners and mayor wondered why their simple vote in a tiny town had attracted so much attention. Branson figured it was because the area was so conservative. Eighty percent of Perry County voted for Mitt Romney.

And, everybody agreed, eastern Kentucky faces its own sort of discrimination. "Yeah," Cummings said, "it's like, 'What are those prejudiced hicks up to now?'"

So what's on the agenda at the next monthly meeting?

The mayor gave a sly smile. "Guns," he said. "We want our gun range back."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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