At the second forum he decided to speak.
Dan Ells looked awkward in front of so many people. Maybe because the microphone was a little too tall. Maybe because he had no speech prepared.
But here he stood last March at one of three televised forums the city called to gather opinions about a proposal that would add lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people to an anti-discrimination ordinance.
Ells was ready to reveal his heart on a topic he'd heard a lot about at church.
"As a husband and a father of two young girls," said the 28-year-old associate pastor, "this aspect of the bathroom issue is a very real issue to me ... that we all cherish as we do something private like using the restroom. This change would take away that liberty."
For a moment the audience sat, confused. Amid all the calls for "gay rights!" and "religious freedom!" this speaker, like many others, was worried about a particular angle of the proposed ordinance:
Fear of a cross-dressing man using a women's bathroom. And this ballot proposal would make it legal.
Gay rights are an extremely emotional and polarizing issue. Four states will vote on gay marriage next month. The U.S. Supreme Court could rule next year on the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a legal union of a man and woman and bars certain federal rights and benefits to people in same-sex marriages.
Culture wars are raging in the nation's heart, too, in bright red Kansas. It's one of three states where sodomy laws are still on the books. In Hutchinson and Salina, the Nov. 6 ballot will contain proposals to offer legal protections to the gay community against discrimination in the workplace, housing and public places.
Twenty-one states and 400 cities already have similar measures. The federal government offers no such protections.
The stakes are clear on the website of the Kansas Equality Coalition: "Everyone should be able to have a job and roof over their head regardless if they are gay or lesbian!"
That rings false to some of Hutchinson's faithful. It would force them to give passive support to what they believe are sinful lifestyles.
Awaken Kansas, linked with the Kansas Family Policy Council and affiliated with James Dobson's Focus on the Family, warns against "new protections based on sexual behavior" and "impacting the religious liberties of business owners, landlords, churches." Its website gives "Bathroom Bill Updates."
In March, when the city held forums on its anti-discrimination measure, the statements were as vivid and varied as the rainbow flag. One of the most eloquent came from the Rev. Andy Addis, who bemoaned how the debate had "descended into the trenches of cultural warfare."
"Have members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community suffered abuses and been treated unfairly? Have they been targeted with the God card by the hypercritically religious, and at the very least suffered from inequality? I would assume, without a doubt, yes.
"But have those on the other side of the aisle been labeled backward, homophobic, sexist, stupid and likened to excessive examples such as Fred Phelps? Without a doubt."
Old Testament verses were heard at the forums, too. Some predicted perverts would find legal refuge in their town.
Such talk outraged others -- some gay, some straight, a few who "came out" on the spot.
"How dare opponents make ludicrous comparisons of LGBT people to pedophiles and sexual deviants?" asked Claudia Delgado, the mother of a gay daughter, glaring out at the audience.
"Opposition is trying to cloud the actual issues of discrimination," she charged, "by introducing ridiculous concerns and scenarios, such as the fear of where a LGBT individual would go to the bathroom. For real ?"
The city motto for Hutchinson, home of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, is "Come Share Our Space," Jon Powell says, then adds: "Unless you are queer."
Powell, 47, is the most prominent gay in town, a 420-pound thorn to those who are worried about homosexual rights.
This town where he was born is one of vast grain elevators, salt mines, a wind turbine plant and the state fair. The 42,000 residents are served by 106 churches. In two of them, Powell's father was a Presbyterian elder and deacon.
The son prayed in the pews beside him for his gay self to go away. When it would not, it was kept hidden. After high school he became a paramedic, then a police officer.
Once, officers arrested a gay man who grabbed an undercover officer.
"The next day, for a joke, the officer who did the arrest got a bouquet of pink flowers with a note, 'Thanks for the good time last night,' " he remembers.
The prank got a big laugh from his peers, but not from Powell.
He quit policing in 1989 but stayed with different angles of the crime-prevention business, such as selling monitoring bracelets, automotive anti-theft and anti-drunken-driving devices. He lived in California and Colorado, then moved to Lenexa, where he felt most welcomed.
"I could be myself there," he says. "My neighbors knew I was gay, but it didn't matter."
At 30, Powell came out to his mother and siblings in Hutchinson. He was awarded guardianship of two nieces, now grown with their own children, who call him their "Gaga."
He moved back three years ago when his rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia rendered him disabled. Bad knees, bad hips, he struggles to walk with the use of a cane. Steroid shots made his weight zoom, 100 pounds in a year.
Powell's dream is to make his hometown a better place for future generations of gay kids. The Kansas Equality Coalition chapter that started with eight members in his living room has grown to about 160, both gay and straight.
Last year, when Hutchinson Community College seemed poised to deny a Gay/Straight Alliance club on campus, he warned of legal action. The administration blinked.
And when a middle school teacher wrote a Facebook rant on how homosexuals would "never enter the Kingdom of Heaven," it was Powell whom the newspaper called for reaction.
Last November, at the open session of the City Council, Powell hobbled to the microphone to throw a Hail Mary pass.
Could the city add sexual orientation and gender identity to its anti-discrimination ordinances?
For a moment, no one spoke. "It felt like an eternity," he says.
They said they'd get back to him.
Weeks later, the City Council asked the city's Human Relations Commission to study the issue. The committee scheduled three days of forums.
By March these forums were rocking the town.
Mothers wanting to protect their gay children. Mothers wanting to protect their straight children. Mothers who were themselves gay. And one transgender man who wished he could be a mother.
Some people cried. Some laughed, if uncomfortably. One quipped that if a real cross-dressing man was peeking under bathroom stalls, he was probably just admiring women's shoes.
More than a few read their prepared speeches with hands that shook, voices that quivered, anger that simmered. A contingent came from Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka to demonstrate down the street.
People at the forums were taking sides. Addis in his five-minute speech showed empathy for both sides: "If we disagree, I'm wrongheaded. Bigoted. Ignorantly undereducated, a gay basher, redneck, hillbilly of a hater. If we agree, I'm brave. I can see the light."
But he played the reverse-twist victim card, saying the debate unfairly painted his side as painting the other side as "sex-crazed monsters looking for access to our children."
The very last person to testify was a man who compared gay men to pedophiles and polygamists. There was a gasp. Powell and friends walked out.
In May the City Council discussed opinions from the forums. Councilman Dean Brigman asked all those in the packed room who opposed changing the anti-discrimination ordinance to please stand.
Whoosh. At least 200 souls rose up.
Then he asked for the "LGBTs to stand."
Powell fumes, remembering: "He didn't say gay supporters. ... He just said LGBTs.
"I felt like a monkey at the zoo."
Brigman went on to chastise those who walked out on the speaker at the last forum. He talked about the Nazis, how the council would repeat the Germans' mistake if it voted against "good Christian morality." This isn't a civil rights fight, he said. "Was slavery? Yes. Rights for women? Yes. But homosexuality? This is all a choice.
"My job is to protect the majority, not a small minority who want special rights. ... If we pass this bathroom bill by making it a government requirement, it moves us closer to a secular and godless society."
Then he offered a challenge: People in the LGBT community who consider themselves Christians "or more importantly view themselves as a saved or born-again Christian" could sit down with him and other teachers of the Bible. "I want you to show me where Scripture supports your lifestyle."
Powell still seethes about this months later.
"Are you kidding me? This guy compared gays to Nazis, and I had to sit there and take it."
In June, the council compromised, striking the public accommodations part of the proposal and voting 3-2 for a ban on discriminatory firings and evictions of gays.
"Our City Council worked really hard on it, searching for a compromise," says John D. Montgomery, executive editor and publisher of The Hutchinson News. "At first the reaction from the two sides were they were happy. But then Awaken Kansas got its people fired up for a petition drive, and then (the Kansas Equality Coalition), too."
Both sides gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot -- one to repeal the ordinance and the other to strengthen it.
In September the City Council repealed its own compromise. It also placed one ballot issue before voters. Either vote yes for anti-discrimination protections for gays, or vote no against them.
It all feels like a time warp to Anne Lauer, a Boston native who moved to Hutchinson because it's her husband's hometown.
"This is 2012. Why are we still talking about this? I wanted a slower pace -- granted -- not to step back into 1962."
Hutchinson has no gay hangouts, and bar owners ask men dancing with each other to please stop. No one knows of any openly gay high school teachers. Almost no one talks of this being a city of haters.
Kansans are great, other than a few "nutsos," Lauer says, but "there is so much fear here. They don't understand that a gay person is no different from a straight person. ... They have dreams. They want to just make a living, have a life."
Her spouse, Brian Davis, laughs at those who stay focused on the "behaviors and lifestyles" of gays.
"If they're talking about sex, well, in July at the Walmart here, two straight people shoplifted some KY Jelly and started doing it in the aisle. That story made it to a London newspaper. Friends over there were calling me about it."
Salina is struggling over the same issue on its Nov. 6 ballot. Its proposed ordinance would protect gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, such as motels or restaurants. (Religious institutions are exempt.)
Originally, Hutchinson's compromise on its ordinance was to drop public accommodations from protection. It's now back in the ballot measure. But the council dropped gender-identity (which includes cross-dressers).
The accommodations protections raise alarm that gays could commandeer churches for same-sex weddings or civil union ceremonies.
Foes warning of a "legal nightmare" offer a few examples: The Christian wedding photographer in New Mexico fined for refusing to take pictures of a same-sex ceremony; the New Jersey Methodist group sued for denying lesbians access to a seaside pavilion.
Lawrence is the only city in Kansas with a blanket anti-discrimination ordinance shielding the LGBT community, passed in 1995. All Board of Regents universities have similar rules.
In 2003, Shawnee County passed coverage but only for government workers. Manhattan last year passed protections similar to Lawrence, but it didn't stick. A new majority elected to the city commission repealed it.
In the Kansas City area, Mission has a protection but only for city employees. (Kansas City passed sexual orientation protections in 1992, adding gender identity in 2008. Unincorporated Jackson County followed in 2010.)
At the state level in Kansas, gays have fared even worse. In 2005, a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage and civil unions passed by a 2-to-1 ratio. Last year a measure to purge the sodomy law -- nullified by a U.S. Supreme Court decision -- was sidetracked.
Gay activists blame state Rep. Jan Pauls, a Hutchinson Democrat with a long record of anti-gay actions, including drafting the constitutional marriage ban.
"She says gays and lesbians shouldn't be raising children, shouldn't be fostering children, that we shouldn't be telling people that we're homosexual and then we wouldn't get discriminated against," says Tom Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition.
This year Pauls tried to pass a measure protecting religious liberty, a revival of an effort from years ago. This appeared after President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act required businesses, even Catholic hospitals and schools, to provide birth control insurance coverage to employees. Pauls' Preservation of Religious Freedom Act was supported by Gov. Sam Brownback.
Anyone claiming their religious right "has been burdened or is likely to be" could sue state institutions and local governments. Lawrence lawmakers saw it as a ruse to gut their city's LGBT ordinance.
Rep. Annie Kuether, a Topeka Democrat, said: "This isn't about freedom of religion. It's about freedom to discriminate."
But Pauls argued: "If someone's sincere religious beliefs are such that they don't want someone of a different sex orientation working in their day care or private foster care facility ... their religious beliefs are trumped by another class."
The bill passed the House 89-27, but it died in the Senate.
On a recent Sunday morning at Union Valley Bible Church, a minister leaned into his hands and whispered: "Some of the things I heard fellow preachers say at that forum horrified me."
Steve Hodgson's hands covered his mouth as if he might snatch the words back.
At the forums he saw "religious show-offism."
"I was hurt hearing so many people equate gayness as the same as pedophilia. And we weren't there to debate the legitimacy of their lifestyle. But we were there to debate where the line of rights should be put."
That line keeps shifting.
Hodgson, 59, doesn't use the word "homosexual." It seems too clinical. Gays should be treated with dignity.
But he also thinks they are "broken" people, just like many heterosexuals with issues. Gays want validation.
"I believe that nobody's lifestyle is fulfilled until they find their life with Jesus.
"They may think they're born that way, and I truly believe they believe that."
He shakes his head.
But they're broken.
Another minister in town says some LGBT people feel broken because of bigoted judgments.
"My opinion as a preacher, I would say that the tongue is worse than anything," says the Rev. Charles Kerschen. "Verbal words will kill you faster. Denigrate you. How many family members say nothing because they didn't want anyone to know their son or daughter was gay?"
Kerschen, 54, is an Episcopal priest for two rural churches, teaches ethics and philosophy at Hutchinson Community College, and serves as faculty adviser for the Gay/Straight Alliance. Studying theology in San Francisco, he worked with the gay community for a decade.
"I challenge students to tell me why being gay is wrong," he says. "They answer me with Bible verses. Most kids don't own their religion. They're just regurgitating what they've heard since they were kids."
A few years ago in Hutchinson, a teenager was found by his brother hanging by the neck in the garage. He was born again, the brother says, and couldn't accept his gayness. The day before he'd been caught at high school kissing another boy.
"The friend who saw them told them, 'You're going to hell, you faggots!' I think that pushed my brother over."
Each year Kerschen has his students answer a survey that gauges attitudes toward gays. It used to be that 65 percent didn't like gay people. Now it's 40 percent. He has known religious straight students who changed their mind about gays. But they, too, pay a price.
"Christians are like black-widow spiders," he says. "They eat their own."
There's a reason Paul Waggoner is the co-owner of a church pew cushion business, and also the point man for Awaken Hutchinson. It's not because the pope knelt on one of Waggoner Inc.'s products.
He loves research, is proud of his vocabulary, is pugnacious in debate.
"To have the city government here say, 'I'm going to help you with your moral reasoning' is the second most preposterous phrase in the English language. For a lot of us, it's like ..." and he stops to lick his index finger and thrust it into the air "... that ethics in Hutchinson is based on how the wind is blowing. It no longer allows Billy Bible Thumper to live his life with his family because Sally Secular imposes her views on him."
Waggoner is no less emphatic in writing: "A terrible precedent ... when you 'privilege' the LGBT lifestyle with a law like this, good honest people lose their right to follow their religious principles. That is outrageous! ... extremely divisive for the community, pitting citizen against citizen."
When a Fox News radio host blogged about the ballot proposal in April, an editorial in The Hutchinson News, under the headline "The Pesky Truth," called the blog posting a "maelstrom of misinformation, fear mongering and deceit."
Waggoner blasted back with a guest editorial, "The Pesky Facts." Fox got it right, he told The Star, saying the mainstream media are all "fuzzy thinking topped with a huge pile of liberal sanctimoniousness."
Waggoner reserves eye-rolling disdain for Democrats, who have tried to pass federal workplace protections for gays since 1974. Obama has said he'd sign such a measure.
Waggoner's favorite book is Phyllis Schlafly's "No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom."
"I highly recommend you peruse it," he told a Star reporter. The book connected with Waggoner. Soon he enlisted with Awaken Kansas.
Waggoner carries with him stacks of photocopied articles. He pulls out a study showing that gays make wages equal to those received by heterosexuals.
"In this age of 'Glee' and Ellen DeGeneres, this whole -- OK, OK, OK -- where is the justification for these people? This is not at all like blacks or Hispanics. ... This group does well."
And then he pulls another clipping. A study on twins, he says, shows homosexuality is "an acquired identity. A study of gay genes was debunked."
Just over 4,000 same-sex couples live in Kansas, a fourth of them in Johnson County, 907 in Sedgwick County (Wichita) and perhaps 70 in Reno County (Hutchinson), according to a Williams Institute study of the 2010 Census Bureau data.
The census severely undercounted gays, says Witt. Take Comanche County, near the Oklahoma border. No gay couples there, according to the count, but Witt said he personally knows of two who have lived there for years.
Though not an invisible demographic, Hutchinson's LGBT population is underestimated, too -- and intimidated. Their straight friends also feel it.
"There's a whole lot of people who are afraid to speak out against it for fear of the backlash," says Lauer, the former Bostonian. "But they won't hesitate when they vote."
The turmoil is teaching the town that it has more gays than it knew.
At the forums, Mark Rupp warned the audience that he would have to talk fast. He had so many Bible verses to recite. But he surprised them all -- by outing himself.
"I am a gay child of God," he said, adding that living a secret life was no life. "In the same way that your right to swing your fist ends at my nose, your freedom to practice your particular brand of religion needs to end at my job, my house and my livelihood."
And there was Erich Bishop, who until he nearly unseated Rep. Pauls in the Democratic primary in August seemed no more remarkable than any other city maintenance worker.
The recent honors graduate from the University of Kansas didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. His degree was in philosophy, after all. So he took a summer job with the city, mowing grass, planting landscape flowers, pulling weeds. He liked the feeling that he was making the world better, even if it was with gardening.
In late March, Bishop was setting geraniums along Main Street, when two vans with Topeka plates parked outside Memorial Hall during one of the forums. Out of the vans climbed nicely dressed men, women and children with protest signs saying: "Honk if you're against gay marriage."
Their message was hurtful. "Each honk was a judgment ... against me, and who I am," Bishop says. "That was a crappy morning."
He decided to run for the Kansas House. And it wasn't long before his parents learned something new about their son -- along with the rest of the world. The newspaper headline: "Ex-Klansman's gay son to challenge conservative Dem."
In the late 1980s Tim Bishop was a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. The family fled Hutchinson for Idaho to be near other Aryan-leaning folk.
But the elder Bishop lost his passion for hate, had a change of heart and embraced Catholicism. The family moved back. And it wasn't so long ago that Erich Bishop overheard his father react to a man's racial slur in reference to Obama. "My dad told them he was our president and how much he respected him ... my dad, praising a black man."
Still, it was a shock for his father that his son was gay.
"Yes, I struggle some," says Tim Bishop. "But I've gotten to the point now, I don't judge. It's not totally easy, but he's my son."
Rhonda Bishop, shudders at her son's interest in continuing in politics. She hears a lot of homophobic talk.
"This situation is making me physically ill. It gets worse and worse. We have evangelical fruitcakes here. People are using religion to make this kind of hate acceptable."
Tim Bishop interrupts.
"Hate is a very slippery slope. Once you slide down, it's really hard to get out of it.
On Third Thursdays, downtown Hutchinson becomes the noisiest, busiest, brightest place in the city.
Stores stay open past 6 p.m. Bands rock out on outdoor stages. Portable tables sprawl on sidewalks with artwork, political brochures and baked goods. And at a stoplight along Main Street, a dozen high school friends, all formerly closeted gays, dazzle gawkers with rainbows.
Rainbow hats. Rainbow tees. Rainbow scarves. Rainbow words on signs: "Hate is not holy" and "Honk for = rights. "
The girls and one boy scream and wave like cheerleaders seeking drivers' attention for a car wash. When a black Ford F-150 pickup expresses a different message -- five middle fingers thrusting skyward -- the teens' mood stays ... gay.
The leader of the group, Emmie "Paris" Lohr, is 15. Tall, at 5-foot-9, slender and with blond hair that shines, she could grace a cover of Seventeen magazine. She often wears pink sparkle Converse shoes. She adores Lady Gaga and belts out the Gaga song, "Born This Way."
She describes herself as "bi-curious," as in attracted to both girls and boys. And since spring she also calls herself a gay activist.
She and her friends listened to the televised forums. Everyone at her school was talking about them. Obama spoke about gay marriage. And then a teacher at a Hutchinson middle school wrote a post on his Facebook page (where most of his students are friended) how homosexuality "ranks in God's eyes the same as murder, lying, stealing, or cheating."
Emmie knew at least three gay students in his classroom, including one who was terrified that the teacher would out him to his parents.
"His words shocked me, because I thought teachers were supposed to support all kids. They're supposed to keep religion out of school," she says.
She started a counter-Facebook group, Stand Together and End Homophobia. But what began as a support group for lonely gay teens has become a full-fledged club.
She has been taken out of classes for wearing her rainbow scarf. She wears a tee that says "Legalize Gay." When she noticed straight couples cuddling in the school halls, she pulled a girlfriend close to cuddle, too. For the shock value, she admits.
"I've been called a stupid bitch, a homo, a dyke. Kids have yelled that I'm going straight to hell, that I'm a faggot, that God hates me. I tell them, how do they know what God thinks? Calling anyone a homo is offensive."
A born-again Christian, she was baptized in August. She wants to be the first to go to prom with another girl (that threshold was crossed last spring at the other Hutchinson high school).
The only life decision Emmie knows for sure is this: "The day I'm graduating, I'm outta here. I'm going somewhere far away where I can just be myself.
"And it's definitely not in Hutchinson."
All the words from the debates about whether gays and lesbians are discriminated against, whether a city, state or government can legislate morality and ethics, and the arguments over what God believes about gay people could fill one of the city's giant grain bins. But newspaper publisher Montgomery doesn't believe the ordinance has really divided his city.
People are more worried about the looming layoffs at the Siemens wind turbine plant, he says.
When Nov. 6 finally gets here, Montgomery predicts gay rights protections won't pass. Uninformed voters facing the three pages of ballot language will just vote to keep things the same, an easier path.
Waggoner says Hutchinson will return back to normal as if nothing happened: "One person told me, 'We'll all go back to ignoring the homosexuals just like we used to.' And that's exactly what will happen."
Except, perhaps, for one change.
The city's Human Relations Commission has an opening.
Last month, Waggoner applied.