I'd be lying if I said I didn't want Jerry Prevo to like me as I was driving to the Anchorage Baptist Temple on Wednesday afternoon.
Sure I was gay, and he knew I was gay, and he was a hard-line Evangelical Christian pastor who'd successfully led every Alaska anti-gay measure in my lifetime. But I looked totally normal in my church clothes. I was smart, I was funny, I was from his neighborhood. What wasn't to like?
My plan was to talk with him about why he was fighting an effort to add sexual orientation to the city's anti-discrimination ordinance. I promised myself that I would really try to listen to him. I crossed into the East Side, where I grew up, passing Value Village and Max's Beefy Burgers and the flower shop. Maybe, I thought, Prevo had some valid points about the ordinance being poorly written. Maybe we could find some common ground.
While I'm being honest, I should say I was kind of unmoved by the push for the ordinance change in the first place. Of course it's the right thing to do, a no-brainer really, but the fight brewing about it made me weary. I'd been getting messages on Facebook for months asking for stories about discrimination to help support the ordinance change. I kept reading the same volley of letters to the editor about how Prevo was a bigot, and how being gay is a sin. I'd been reading those letters for 20 years. I wanted to say, "Really? Again? " None of it reflected the Anchorage I knew.
I've been openly gay since I was 17 and I can say that I've never worried about getting fired or renting an apartment. I have a huge supportive family and a wide network of friends, so maybe I've been insulated. But every stranger I've come out to, from my high school principal to the cable guy, has been totally respectful. I didn't want to get caught up in the same old fight because I believed the world had changed. I believed most people in my town were tolerant, whether it said so in an ordinance or not.
I have a fancy degree in the study of social movements but everything I know about real social change comes from living here. It boils down to this: Laws don't change people's minds, personal relationships do.
Which is probably why I wanted to sit down with Prevo. I mean, how could a guy meet me, a perfectly rational, perfectly friendly, perfectly normal person, and think I was dangerous, that protecting my rights was anything other than fair?
In the church office, a receptionist directed me through a door. Prevo appeared on the other side in hip-looking glasses and a sport coat. He extended his hand.
"It's three generations now I've had come visit me here," he said as we walked to his office. "You, your mother, and your grandmother."
My grandmother, Lidia Selkregg, was on the Assembly in 1975 when Prevo, fresh from Tennessee, made a name for himself by winning a fight to take gay people out of the city's non-discrimination ordinance. She opposed him. People threatened her over the telephone. Somebody torched a cross in her front yard in Nunaka Valley. She eventually lost her Assembly spot.
Now my mom, Sheila Selkregg, sits in my grandmother's seat. Prevo is her constituent. This change was not her idea, but I'm her kid, so she told him she's going to support it. We usually don't talk to each other about our jobs, so I didn't tell her I was going to see him.
I sat down in his office, which was done in shades of tan. He explained that there were normal homosexuals and perverted ones, but those were more often men. I was a normal homosexual, though he couldn't condone my alternative lifestyle, for the sake of the young people and because it was a sin just like adultery or murder. Some gay people are happy, he said, but most are very sad.
The ordinance could make it so he might have to hire gay bus drivers for his religious school, he said. I told him I could see how that might stress him out. There would be all kinds of lawsuits, he said. And there was the whole thing about straight guys hiding out in bathrooms dressed like women trying to look at girls, because now their rights to "gender expression" would be protected.
But what about common sense? I asked him. Bathroom peeping toms are breaking the law. And since when did pervy bathroom dudes care if it was legal? Plus, there are the same protections offered in 100 cities across the country. There's even a law in Peoria, Ill. Wouldn't these laws have been repealed if there was an avalanche of lawsuits? Or men in dresses in bathrooms? And why would a gay bus driver want to work for the Baptist Temple?
I asked him if there was any version of the ordinance he would go for. He thought about it. Maybe if it just said "gay and lesbian" and not "sexual orientation." Transgender people couldn't be included. And there had to be a stipulation that religious people didn't have to follow it.
But even then, it was clear he would still have reservations. I wasn't convinced there could be a version he wouldn't fight.
He looked at his watch. I turned off the tape recorder. If the thing passed, he'd be forced to push a voter initiative to overturn it, he told me. We looked at each other across his desk. We both knew that was the kind of thing that would start a real war, that would open up a fissure in our town that could take a generation to heal. He smiled congenially. He'd won before, he reminded me.
"And if I remember correctly, some very nice Assembly members lost their jobs that time," he said.
Driving out of the parking lot, my stomach hurt. How was it, I wondered, that in a town where people were uniformly respectful of me as a gay person, we couldn't make that respect part of city code?
I turned into my grandparents' old neighborhood and wound around to their house. The garage was open and I half expected to see their red Oldsmobile in there. But they've been dead for years.
I'd convinced myself the world had changed since 1975, that the forces of logic and personal connection had moved hearts and minds, that Anchorage was just as much my town as it was Prevo's. But for the first time in my life, as I stared at what used to be my grandparents' front yard, I wasn't sure. I wasn't sure at all.