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Southern city pushes ahead on LGBT front
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Retired journalist Michael Walsh is working to re-write gay life in Eureka Springs, Ark.

Walsh, 63, who lived in the Chicago area 1981-2006 and was an editor at the Sun-Times, is now retired in Arkansas. He authored the city's precedent-setting domestic partner registry in 2007, the first and only in the state.

In November, Walsh was one of two who persuaded the local city council to adopt a resolution supporting marriage equality. Eureka Springs became the first city in the state to officially endorse the idea after a vote of the city council.

"Eureka is an island of progressivism in a sea of red-state conservatism," Walsh said. "The town has a couple of unofficial mottos: 'Where the misfits fit' and 'The world's largest outdoor asylum.'

"In September I read that Austin became the first city in Texas to officially endorse same-sex marriage and thought to myself, 'Eureka Springs is the Arkansas equivalent of Austin, so we should do that, too."

He recruited his friend Lamont Ritchie, who is gay and a county commissioner, to write the resolution, and they then lined up two members of the city council as co-sponsors.

"In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 12 vote, a few of my friends and I collected more than 700 signatures from supporters," Walsh said. "I gave the list to the city council on the night that Lamont and I spoke in favor of the resolution to make it clear to them that public support for marriage equality was incredibly strong, even here in the Deep South.

"Surprisingly, no one spoke against it. There wasn't even any discussion at the council table. The vote was called and the result was five 'ayes' and one 'present.'"

Walsh said the resolution is "a vitally important and historic first step."

The resolution "means that this state has one progressive, enlightened, fair-minded municipal government that believes in inclusion, not exclusion, and that recognizes and respects the notion of the separation of church and state," Walsh said. "It also adds to the momentum of the marriage equality movement nationwide and alerts national LGBT organizations not to overlook the work that gay and lesbian people are doing in the South and throughout small-town America. Although it doesn't get much attention, serious LGBT civil rights work is being done in fly-over country."

Walsh is truly proud of his efforts.

"As a writer with thousands of bylines in hundreds of newspapers and magazines behind me, I've come to realize that my words can be persuasive. They can open minds and change attitudes, round up allies and influence votes. At 63, and for no pay, I'm doing the most satisfying work of my life," he said.

Walsh was the editor of the Sun-Times' Sunday Home section 1981-1984, then a nationally syndicated columnist for Universal Press Syndicate and a contributing editor to such publications as Metropolitan Home, Better Homes & Gardens and House & Garden. He retired in 2008.

"Soon after I moved to Eureka Springs, I made friends with another gay man and two lesbians," Walsh said. "On New Year's Eve 2006, we were at a bar celebrating and the subject of domestic partnerships came up. After a brief discussion, we tabled the topic until the next day when we met again in a living room, each of us armed with our laptops. Within a few hours, we decided to propose a Domestic Partnership Registry to the city council. I took on the task of writing an ordinance that would make it law."

In February 2007, they presented the ordinance to city council, with data, research and endorsements.

"In Arkansas, it was groundbreaking," Walsh said. "The backlash was tremendous. Fundamentalist preachers railed against us and even the American Family Association got involved, threatening to boycott the town and claiming faith-based tourists would never set foot in a resort city that had been 'taken over by homosexuals.' I was shocked at the vitriol and bigotry."

But Walsh and the three others, backed by public support from residents who knew them primarily as friends, neighbors and customers, refused to back down.

The city council passed the domestic partnership registry unanimously—and to date, more than 600 same-sex couples from more than 55 communities in Arkansas, as well as 15 other states, have come to Eureka Springs to get a Domestic Partnership certificate.

"It has generated thousands of dollars in revenue for the city and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the local economy," Walsh said.

"By itself, [the domestic partnership registry] doesn't convey any legal rights. Under our one-man/one-woman state constitutional amendment, it couldn't. But it has been honored by employers, health insurance companies, car rental agencies, airlines and health clubs with 'family plan' memberships. More importantly, it has had deep personal meaning for couples in committed relationships because it offers official government validation and recognition of those relationships.

"The lesson in a little town with no official LGBT organization, no gay business guild, is that if you want something done, you just do it. And then work like hell to drum up public support. The other lesson was that you don't actually have to be a long-term gay activist to become one."

And in 2011, Walsh also worked to gain access to health insurance for the domestic partners of city workers.

"In a few years, no one will remember my name and I'm just fine with that," Walsh said. "The important thing is that local and state history will regard what Eureka Springs has been able to do in the realm of LGBT equality and social justice as the starting points."

What's next?

"I'd really like to work on developing an LGBT organization in Eureka Springs so that the gay community could empower itself and speak with an 'official' voice," Walsh said. "We have the population and the economic power. What we don't have is the leadership. I'm not it. I don't do committees or meetings. My best place is at the keyboard, not the podium. More LGBT folks are moving here every month. Sooner or later, I'll identify the one who has the organizational and leadership skills I lack."

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