SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Randy Doenning organizes a charity gala for gay teens and AIDS patients and isn't afraid to hold his male partner's hand in public in the Bible Belt city where he lives.
The small business owner also remembers when white supremacists bombed a gay church in Springfield, bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors were used at the local university for a play about a gay Jewish activist and the school's president refused to add sexual orientation to Southwest Missouri State University's nondiscrimination policy.
As the elected leaders in the city of 160,000 debate whether to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Doenning and other activists are optimistic. They also know legal protections are anything but assured in a city that's home to the national headquarters of the Assemblies of God Church and three Bible colleges.
Across the heartland, from regional economic hubs in southwest Missouri such as Springfield to the Kansas plains and Nebraska college towns, the battle for gay rights is playing out in city halls and town squares, often with opponents of expanded nondiscrimination laws trying to reverse decisions by government officials.
"Places like Springfield, Missouri, are the trenches of this battle right now," said Doenning.
In Lincoln, Neb., the groups Family First and the Nebraska Family Council quickly collected more than 10,000 signatures challenging a "fairness amendment" approved by the City Council in May, forcing the city to either let the ordinance die or submit it for voter approval. No decision was reached before the deadline for the November ballot.
Omaha, the state's largest city, narrowly passed an ordinance in March extending legal protections to gay and transgender residents after a tie vote scuttled a similar attempt in October 2010.
In the Kansas towns of Salina and Hutchinson, opponents of expanded nondiscrimination laws in the Kansas towns of Salina and Hutchinson have collected enough signatures to force public votes after similar recent decisions by their city leaders.
Something similar could happen in Springfield, where the City Council is meeting Monday.
A public hearing earlier this month drew hundreds of residents, with most speakers approving of the change. But the eight council members and Mayor Bob Stephens – five of whom, including the mayor, face re-election in April 2013_ are hearing rumblings that their support could have political consequences, said council member Doug Burlison, who favors the change.
To force a vote, opponents in Springfield would need to collect just 2,101 valid signatures in 30 days. One council member has said he already plans to call for a public vote.
In 1994, city voters handily rejected a hate crimes law that had been passed by the City Council and was brought to voters in a petition drive. Groups opposed to the ordinance subsequently targeted council members who had supported the law.
Nearly two decades later, organizers say Springfield is overdue for basic legal protections for gays and lesbians. They point to the Missouri college town of Columbia, which has had such enhanced protection in its nondiscrimination ordinance for years; as well as other cities of comparable size and characteristics, including Evansville, Ind.; Columbus, Ohio; Columbia, S.C.; and Grand Rapids, Mich.
"If we had the majority voting on minority issues (all the time), we still would not see women with the right to vote, we would not have African-Americans voting," said Stephanie Perkins, deputy director of PROMO, a statewide gay advocacy group.
The Assemblies of God church, the world's largest Pentecostal denomination, is among opponents of the proposed ordinance. In an Aug. 14 letter to Springfield's mayor, the group's general superintendent, George Wood, said the proposal doesn't adequately cover an exemption for religious organizations to give hiring preferences to members of their own faith. Wood encouraged Stephens to allow voters to make the final determination. A church spokeswoman said Wood and other top officials were traveling overseas and unavailable for further comment.
Dave Myers, a member of the political group Live Free Springfield, told the council the measure is unnecessary.
"What this ordinance does in reality is force upon businesses a regulation in favor of a tiny fraction of the population when (there is) almost no documented evidence of discrimination," he said.
Perkins, 27, said she and her partner – who plan to marry next year in Iowa, where gay marriage is legal – do encounter discrimination, such as when looking for a house.
"We haven't been told, `We aren't going to rent to lesbians,'" she said. "But we have absolutely been made to feel unwelcome."
Doenning, a Monett native who moved to Springfield in 1989, said the city "has been very good to my partner and me. "
"We've never been treated poorly in public. We've never been called out, or had an act of violence committed against us. We've never had a bad experience. In a lot of ways, we blend in."
That wasn't always the case.
In 1985, the leader of the Arkansas-based Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord was convicted of federal racketeering charges in connection with a firebombing of the Metropolitan Community Church in Springfield two years earlier. Four years later, the Southwest Missouri State theater department's presentation of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart," which portrayed the early days of the AIDS epidemic, led to public protests by thousands and an unsolved arson at a gay student's home on opening night.
As recently as a decade ago, the university's governing board rejected adding sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy. The change was made in 2006.
While the exact size of Springfield's gay community is difficult to determine, activists such as Doenning and Perkins said its members are more visible – and more vocal.
"The fact that we're having this conversation shows there's progress," Perkins said. "We have moved a long way in 10 years. But there's no shortage of homophobia and bullying."