Thomas R. Collins
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, January 30, 2005 - WEST PALM BEACH Rick Rose and his longtime partner, Peter Emmerich, could have tied the knot in Frankfurt, Germany. They could have gotten nearly the same legal benefits as any Mary and Bob, Jane and Steve, Laura and Mike. They had successful careers and were wealthy.

So why did they move last year to the rightward-lurching United States and spend almost their entire life savings on a bed and breakfast?

Answer: West Palm Beach.

It was a good place to start a business, they thought. And a place where being gay wouldn't have to be their little secret.

It's been 10 years since Christian conservatives failed to repeal a city gay-rights law in an emotionally wrenching and sexually graphic campaign, the first time in Florida such an effort didn't work. And West Palm Beach is more gay and more gay-friendly than ever.

The U.S. Census doesn't reliably track the gay population. But the number of people on the mailing list of the ever-expanding gay and lesbian community center Compass has grown from 600 to 6,000 in the past three years. About 4,200 of those people most but not all of whom are gay live in West Palm Beach. A gay and lesbian chamber of commerce, being called the Pride Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, elected a board of directors just last week.

Compass is the biggest gay and lesbian community center in the southeastern United States in staff size, budget and government-financed programs. That includes Washington. The gay and lesbian festival PrideFest has grown from a picnic of 500 in 1995 to a major event of 8,000 last year.

The gay community also earns praise for being among the first to invest in once-depressed areas such as Flamingo Park and Grandview Heights.

"A lot of people credit that community with early revitalization," Mayor Lois Frankel said.

Taking on the opposition

And the lawmaking hasn't stopped. West Palm Beach is proposing a new law creating a domestic-partners registry that would extend certain rights to same-sex couples and other couples living together, such as making important medical decisions. On the current track, the law would get final approval on a symbolic date: Valentine's Day.

"There isn't a necessity to be pushed into a subculture," said Rose, who grew up in West Palm Beach and owns the Grandview Gardens Bed & Breakfast in Grandview Heights.

"For people who say, 'OK, I don't want to live in a big city but I want to live somewhere gay-friendly,' they're coming here," said Rand Hoch, founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, which led the push for the city's 10-year-old law.

No one is saying the law, which outlawed discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation, age, race, and religion, is directly responsible for all of these changes. But gay activists say it created a climate that made their jobs a lot easier.

In 2000, the city granted medical benefits to employees identified as "domestic partners." In 2002, Palm Beach County outlawed discrimination against gays in housing. In 2003, the Palm Beach County School District approved a policy against harassment of gay students.

The controversy over the city's law drew national attention. Similar laws had been passed then repealed in Tampa and Alachua County. The West Palm Beach ordinance was passed in September of 1994 and went into effect 10 days later. The only city commissioner to vote against it, Christian conservative Sarah Brack-Nuckles, immediately set about repealing it. She got enough signatures to get it on the ballot.

Helped by some churches and the Christian Coalition, Brack-Nuckles sent out mailings marked "VERY SENSITIVE ISSUE! FOR ADULT READING ONLY!" Dire health and economic risks were linked with homosexuality, she wrote in messages that detailed deviant sex acts.

"Sadly, the facts surrounding the 'gay rights' movement, and the practical aspects, are not known to most Americans," she wrote.

There already was a significant gay population in the city back then, but it was far less organized and not as outspoken, gay activists say. Many gays interviewed for this story said they supported the effort but were still in the closet and afraid to campaign publicly. But many came out because of the fight, and 56 percent of voters chose to uphold the law.

"It affirmed for them what they hoped West Palm Beach was a tolerant city," said Richard Giorgio, a political consultant for the pro-law campaign.

Brack-Nuckles moved to Georgia about a year later. Her house was sold to two gay men. She was not able to be reached for this story. Three people on her petition committee did not return calls.

Since 1995, just four grievances on the grounds of sexual orientation discrimination have been filed with the city; they were all dismissed because the alleged discrimination occurred outside the city. Still, Nancy Graham, who was mayor at the time and brought the ordinance forward, said the law has helped the city evolve.

"They learn to be tolerant when they start meeting people and start having them live next door," she said.

A growing acceptance

Frankel, who proposed the domestic registry, said the only controversy over homosexuality in the city that she recalls in recent years was when the Voices of Pride gay choir was prevented last year from performing at Rosarian Academy, a Catholic school. The choir simply performed elsewhere and to large crowds, at that.

West Palm Beach's gay community has become more organized than many other larger cities, gay activists say.

Nicole Leidesdorf, chief operations officer with Compass, said the growing acceptance has emboldened lesbians to become more outspoken and active, though they have traditionally been less involved in activism than gay men, at least locally. The organization's teen group was 15 percent female just a few years ago; now it's about half female.

"My partner and I can go to CityPlace and hold hands and I'm not necessarily fearful of being harassed," Leidesdorf said.

Tony Plakas, Compass' executive director, said the gay community doesn't have to resort to stunts to be heard anymore.

"There was a time when activism was putting on a dress and marching down the middle of the road," he said. "Now we're at the table and we're having reasonable conversations."

Dick Nolan and Bob Pingpank are two of the lucky ones. They've always been comfortable with their homosexuality, from the time they met as college freshmen at Trinity College in Connecticut 49 years ago, Nolan said.

But he added: "We much prefer it the way it is today."

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