I may live and work in New York, but my heart, my roots and, yes, a beautiful home I own with my partner of 23 years (now my fiancé!) are in Arizona. To my great dismay, my home state has lately been acquiring a reputation as a right wing, out-of-touch backwater, as much as it hurts to say it. I’m convinced that people have reached this conclusion largely due to nationwide coverage of some of the more backward political personalities like Gov. Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. To wit, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen the photo of Brewer wagging her finger in the face of President Obama on an airport tarmac.
As is usually the case, however, the truth is more nuanced. People often forget that Brewer only became governor when Janet Napolitano resigned to become the first woman to serve as the United States Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) in the Obama Administration. Gov. Napolitano is quite progressive, with an excellent track record of support for diversity and inclusion, and is a great friend to the LGBT community.
While in office, Napolitano issued an executive order requiring that state employee benefits be extended to the partners of unmarried state employees (including those in the university system). Since gay marriage is non-existent in Arizona, it would be impossible for same-sex couples to have the rights to state employees’ medical benefits, etc. As a result, partnered gay employees were being unfairly treated and discriminated against. Napolitano’s executive order rectified this situation. Once Brewer took over as Governor, one of her first moves was to repeal the executive order providing domestic partner benefits for state workers - under the guise of needing to save the state money. A ridiculous position, since a mere 250 or so people were taking advantage of this benefit at the time.
Our friends at Lambda Legal jumped on the case and eventually the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco blocked Brewer’s decision. Brewer appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which just announced that it is denying Brewer’s request, and will let stand the preliminary injunction striking down the discriminatory Arizona law. The result is that state employees who are not married, but are legal same-sex domestic partners, will receive vital family health insurance benefits.
A backlash against these sorts of anti-gay antics is underway in a state that was once solidly red, but is slowly turning purple. Southern Arizona, where Tucson is, and Northern Arizona, where Flagstaff is, are both progressive regions; but the bulk of the state’s population is in the Phoenix area, which has traditionally been conservative due to the large number of retirees. Arizona has by tradition been more libertarian than "right wing," like Brewer and Arpaio.
Another Arizonan, Sen. Barry Goldwater, was a libertarian who eventually came out publically for gay rights - calling for an end to the military ban on gays in 1993. His famous quote: "You don’t have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight." Not only did he show outward support to the gay community - including his openly gay grandson Ty, but also had a great respect for ’all’ people, including the hard working immigrant field hands toiling in the fields. While still serving in the Senate, Goldwater famously told Bob Dole that if the Christian right got control of the Republican Party, he and Dole would no longer fit in with the party. Additionally, he has said, "It’s wonderful that we have so many religious people in our party, ... They need to leave their theologies in their churches." Boy was he right.
There are so many examples of LGBT folks who are public servants in Arizona. My good friend, former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, who came out quite awhile back, was at one time the only openly gay Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives. I had the great honor to attend his wedding last month when he married his long time partner Hector Alfonso who, by the way, is a native of Panama. My buddy Neil Giuliano was the long-time openly gay Republican mayor of Tempe, Arizona, who I predict will one day make it to the Arizona governor’s mansion.
In addition to Kolbe, a number of gays have served in the Arizona house and senate with distinction-just think of Arizona State Senator Ken Cheuvront and state legislator Steve May. Add to the list Congresswoman Kristen Simena from Phoenix, recently elected last year as the first openly bisexual member of the U.S. House of Representatives. I give it one or two more election cycles until the yahoos currently bringing down the name of Arizona will finally be in the minority.
What this means for me? Well, within minutes of SCOTUS’ magnificent overturn of DOMA, I flipped my Facebook status to "Engaged" after a romantic, mid-air, IM marriage proposal from my beloved. While a flood of congratulations messages rushed in, I actually let myself entertain the real possibility that he and I could one day retire in our cherished Tucson as a couple of old married farts.
But more than that, this transformation for Arizona could be momentous for the countless hard-working, tax-paying LGBT Arizonans who fight the good fight every day, and who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and who deserve - like any American-the legal right to marry the person they love. They deserve equality, and I believe they will see it soon - but there’s a lot more work to be done.