Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tolerance put to the test - Gay mayoral candidate and his opponent refuse to make his sexual orientation an issue,and many residents feel the same way

Tolerance put to the test - Gay mayoral candidate and his opponent refuse to make his sexual orientation an issue, and many residents feel the same way, writes the Tribune's Jo Napolitano
By Jo Napolitano , Tribune staff reporter recently on assignment in Texas
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published June 16, 2007

DALLAS -- Ed Oakley, in a neck-and-neck contest for mayor, didn't want to make an issue of being gay.

But then came Time magazine and its "Lavender Heart of Texas" piece. After that, an Associated Press story announced Oakley's sexual orientation.

Suddenly, the nation was forced to put aside its stereotypes of rodeos and 10-gallon hats and realize that Texas has changed.

But no matter how far the state has come, Oakley's campaign still shies away from the topic, insisting his sexual orientation is not an issue in the race, which has come down to a runoff Saturday with businessman Tom Leppert.

Oakley's scheduler refused to arrange a phone interview with Oakley about it, shunning the national attention. "You'd do the same thing in my position," he said.

The fact that Oakley is gay is relevant to a group called Heritage Alliance, which mounted an effort to inform voters of his sexual orientation, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Clare Jones, Heritage's vice president, said crime, education and homosexuality are the three main issues in the race, and that her group had made 50,000 calls to alert residents to the fact that Oakley is gay.

When I met Oakley last weekend at a photo shoot, he kept his distance, referring all questions to a campaign supporter who later said he couldn't be quoted.

Oakley would answer just one query before he left. It was an easy question about his chances on Saturday. "Of course I'm going to win," he said.

Though Dallas has a thriving and close-knit gay community, it's still in a red state. As a result, gays here say they are a little more low-key than in other cities across the nation.

But most people in the community are glad to know Oakley's sexuality didn't keep him out of the race.

"Texas has a reputation of not being gay-friendly, and small-town Texas is still pretty conservative," said Eric Cartrite, a patron at a gay bar in the Oak Lawn neighborhood.

But Dallas is a place, he said, where "you can walk the streets holding hands with your partner. You couldn't do that in other areas."

Indeed, many gay residents say they flocked to Dallas from smaller places knowing they would be able to make a home here without harassment.

The city already elected an openly gay sheriff and other officials, so Oakley's run isn't a surprise, at least not among native Texans. Word was already out about Oakley when he joined the City Council in 2001.

Now, the nation will be watching how or whether his sexuality plays a role in the race.

Early voting was up by about 28 percent compared with the May 12 general election, which featured 11 candidates, an election official said. Runoffs don't get as much voter turnout, but this one may be different. The Dallas Morning News has said the race is too close to call.

It's not clear whether the early voters are Oakley's supporters coming out in droves or Dallas' more conservative residents who simply don't want the distinction of being the largest city in America with an openly gay mayor.

Still, there's no denying the region's conservative roots. Jones, of the Heritage Alliance, said, "We believe that homosexuality is a sin and would complicate someone's ability to govern judiciously."

Leppert, Oakley's opponent, denounced the group's information effort on Oakley.

No matter what happens Saturday, the election isn't necessarily a barometer of the city's tolerance. Many residents -- gay and straight -- said they planned to put sexual orientation aside and vote for the best candidate.

And it's not clear that Oakley will have the support of all gay voters. Some said they planned to vote for him until his camp released a commercial highlighting his opponent's facial tick. It was a cheap shot, they said.

They say, too, that Oakley's election isn't critical for the advancement of the gay community -- that Dallas will still be a great place to be out whether he's in or not.



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