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Nation’s first all-LGBTQ city council tests modern meaning of diversity

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - This glamorous desert getaway achieved a measure of fame a little more than a year ago when voters elected the nation's first city council consisting entirely of members of the LGBTQ community.

Mayor Robert Moon, left, Christy Holstege, J.R. Roberts, Lisa Middleton and Geoff Kors constitute the Palm Springs, California, City Council, the first in the United States to be all-LGBT.
Mayor Robert Moon, left, Christy Holstege, J.R. Roberts, Lisa Middleton and Geoff Kors constitute the Palm Springs, California, City Council, the first in the United States to be all-LGBT.Read moreCity of Palm Springs / City of Palm Springs

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — This glamorous desert getaway achieved a measure of fame a little more than a year ago when voters elected the nation's first city council consisting entirely of members of the LGBTQ community.

A bisexual woman and a transgender woman were selected to join three gay men on the council that election night. The gay and lesbian community — a majority of the electorate in this city of 45,000 people — cheered the milestone as an affirmation of the community's model tolerance. RuPaul, the nation's unofficial drag-queen laureate, chimed in with a celebratory tweet to more than a million followers.

"It was pretty cool, a pretty cool thing," said council member Geoff Kors, noting that adding the "B" and the "T" to the council that night was particularly special. "It sent a very powerful message to anyone out there who felt alone."

The happy moment did not last long. The council elected in November 2017 also happened to be all white, and some people did not think that was cool at all.

What was viewed by many as a broad step toward greater diversity instead turned Palm Springs into a forum for a debate about what diversity means — and who, exactly, is best suited to represent whom in a state shaped for decades by identity politics.

The challenges that emerged almost immediately to this city's all-LGBTQ council reflected arguments that have remained unresolved — here in California and across the country — for decades over gay, black and Latino representation. In the Trump era, the divide has widened.

Less than three months after the council's election, a Latino civil rights group threatened to sue the city under the California Voting Rights Act, saying Latinos had been frozen out of political representation because of the at-large voting system in place. About 25 percent of the city's population is Latino, including many whose families have been here for generations but have never seen one of their own on the City Council.

To avoid the lawsuit, the council changed the system so members will be elected by district. The move effectively guaranteed that the all-LGBTQ council will end its short, largely unhappy tenure with this November's election.

The past year has included bitter debates over whether the council should weigh in on national issues, whether the mayor is secretly a Republican, and whether gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender politicians understand the changing needs of those outside the community.

"What is happening in Palm Springs is the kind of challenge more cities and more states are going to face as the country becomes more diverse," said Benjamin Bishin, a University of California at Riverside political science professor and author of the 2009 book "Tyranny of the Minority: The Subconstituency Politics Theory of Representation."

"The real question is whether these representatives from one traditionally marginalized group can adequately represent those from another, in this case Latinos," he continued. "But representation is not just about what constituents want. If it were, we'd see the same chromatic people running things over and over again."

Sexual identity and potholes

Lounging in the semishadow of San Jacinto Peak, which helps form the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs is generally a sedate, polite place with few problems. Bickering over politics is about as cool here as replacing one of the city’s Jetsons-sleek midcentury modern homes with a three-story McMansion.

This is a city of walled-and-gated retirement communities and golf courses edged by desert, a state-of-the-art design and cultural center, and a destination for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people who over the years have moved here to make a home and live out life openly.

Among those were Lisa Middleton, who is 66 years old and became the council's "T," as she put it, with her November 2017 election. She moved here from San Francisco, where she worked for the State Compensation Insurance Fund and, even in that famously tolerant city, lived a double life.

Her campaign for council focused on neighborhood issues — road conditions, bicycle safety and speed limits — rather than making history or pushing an LGBTQ agenda. Her response when asked about sexual identity and municipal politics: "Potholes do not have a gender."

"There were a few nasty emails and a few transphobic shouts," she said about her campaign. "My reaction to those was private. But, boiled down, it was basically, 'Is that the best you can do?' "

Voting rights legal threat

The new council began its work with the mundane.

There were citywide complaints about homes being leased out as short-term vacation rentals, essentially party houses that disrupted the still, starlit evenings. Like many California cities, Palm Springs also has a homelessness problem; the council needed to find shelter for 200 people living on the streets.

Then, less than two months into its tenure, the council found itself facing a legal threat.

The city received a letter in February 2018 from a lawyer for the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a Latino civil rights group. It said the city's at-large voting system "dilutes the ability of Latinos to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Palm Springs' council elections."

The group had sent similar letters to other California cities where Latino political representation did not seem to reflect the population's size. It was difficult to argue that some reform wasn't necessary in Palm Springs, where an increasing number of young Latinos were returning to make a life and enter politics.

"I'm in the group that says we can celebrate our all-LGBTQ council, but that we can also improve," said Alexis Ortega, 31, director of community engagement for the LGBT Community Center of the Desert.

Ortega, who identifies as queer, was born in Palm Springs and grew up along the quiet streets of San Rafael and Sunrise Way, where large retirement communities have since been built alongside the more modest houses of her childhood. She went through the schools of the Palm Springs Unified District, whose student body is now 80 percent Latino.

Her father migrated from Jalisco, Mexico, meeting her mother in the United States and eventually settling in the desert, where he has worked outside all his life, in the fields and now at construction sites. She said he always urged her to study hard so she could work indoors.

Ortega did. After graduating from Stanford University, she returned to Palm Springs.

"My sentiment originally was that I can't wait to leave here," she said. "But you come to realize the impact you can make on a small community."

Ortega served on the commission assigned to draw five voting districts, and the council made clear before the process began that there would be no gerrymandering to help incumbents hold their seats.

The council has had a gay and lesbian majority for a decade, but very few women have served in recent years. There is also the question of age diversity, something Ortega was acutely aware of as a teen finding her way in a place identified as a "retirement community."

"When you grow up here, go to schools here, and you hear that, you just feel invisible," Ortega said.

The complication occurred in District 3, where three incumbents live — Mayor Robert Moon, council member J.R. Roberts and Kors. Moon and Roberts opposed the measure creating the districts, and only Kors has announced his intention to run again.

"We went to districts out of fear of a lawsuit, not because we wanted to," said Roberts, 58, a gregarious architect who restores midcentury modern homes. "That is no way to make policy."

Roberts calls himself the "reluctant queer," someone who saw the "all-LGBTQ" branding of the council as more of a distraction than a benefit. He believes the city is too small to be carved up into districts, which he predicts will turn into "fiefdoms" and cause friction between council members suddenly competing for city resources.

"If you really want to get women, to get people of color, to run, show them how to," he said, proposing city-sponsored educational forums. "Empower them, give them the tools to do it. That will do far more to expand diversity than districts."

The debate shadowed much of the council's year. Traditional decorum sometimes gave way to anger, suspicion and a philosophical divide.

"What we are also seeing in Palm Springs is that once you set aside the issue of sexual identity, other political differences arise," said Bishin, the UC-Riverside professor.

A voice in the larger world

One constant source of friction has been whether an ostensibly nonpartisan council should weigh in on national and international concerns.

The prior council, for example, passed a resolution saying Palm Springs would abide by the climate-change goals of the Paris agreement despite the Trump administration's withdrawal from the environmental accord. The city joins legal briefs about LGBTQ issues and takes positions on immigration and health care policy.

"This is not my favorite analogy, but Palm Springs punches above its weight," Kors said. "People care what we think on certain issues. We don't just take positions to take positions."

Moon, the mayor, disagrees.

He is a 69-year-old retired naval officer who grew up gay in Little Rock, Arkansas. One of his deployments was off the coast of Iran during the hostage crisis, and his ship came under missile fire.

Moon calls himself a moderate Democrat; he has photographs on an office table of himself with Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. He said he got into politics late in life as a continuation of public service. He now says, bluntly, "I hate politics."

His vote against districts, he said, was in part because he believes the city should have an at-large mayor — now the office will rotate annually among council members — and in part because he has never seen eye-to-eye with what he calls the council's "professional gays," meaning those who have been more directly active in LGBTQ causes.

“They can throw all this s— at me — that I am not gay enough, not progressive enough,” Moon said. “But when you’ve been shot at by the Iranians, you know? This will pass.”

In principle, Moon opposes council resolutions on national issues, saying, "We should just stay out of it." But he has voted in support of many of them, prompting accusations of hypocrisy from council colleagues, whom he in return has called far too leftist.

"He will have to answer for himself," Middleton said, referring to the mayor's positions. "But I would take much of what he has said and done to mean he has a problem with the Democratic Party."

The push for more women, and for younger people, to diversify the council was helped by the election of Christy Holstege, a Stanford Law School graduate who practices poverty law. She is 32 years old and put the "B" in the all-LGBTQ council with her election victory.

"I was part of this wave after Trump's election, a group that understood we need a seat at the table now," Holstege said.

The importance of preserving the all-LGBTQ council is less important, she said, than expanding its diversity. But she contests the central claim of the legal challenge, now settled with the district decision, that one historically marginalized group cannot represent another.

"Never before was there a complaint that we weren't representative," she said. "This may not be the most inclusive council, especially when it comes to people of color. But we have to be careful that this is not used against us."

The newly drawn District 1 will not have an incumbent running in November. But a favorite has emerged: Grace Garner, who was born in Palm Springs 33 years ago.

She is an employment lawyer, a Latina and a straight woman.

"It is great that we live in a place that has allowed for this," said Garner, referring to the election of the all-LGBTQ council. "But there are so few people of color in office, and I'm running to add a voice of diversity and a voice for working families."

The campaign has yet to start in earnest. But Garner already has the support of some of the city's most influential gay political players, including James Williamson, who several years ago became the first openly gay man elected to the Palm Springs school board. He is also married to council member Kors.

“If we get to a broader spectrum of diversity on the council, I think, frankly, everybody will be happier,” Williamson said.