Desert, Cactuses, and GOP Gays

Pride in Phoenix and Tempe is full of contradictions

“Arizona is so conservative, even the gays are Republicans,” my old college roommate Scott said in a phone conversation a few days I visited him and his wife there. I hadn’t been to the state since we’d been in school together, way back in the 1980s when the chatter about Arizona centered on racist Governor Evan Mecham forbidding a holiday for Martin Luther King.

“Well, it’s allowed now,” Scott assured me, though he had added that the state still has its conservative bent, mentioning his many Mormon co-workers as one example.

I’d been invited to Arizona by one of those gay Republicans Scott mentioned––Neil Giuliano, the former mayor of Tempe, who currently runs the Gay and Lesbian Against Defamation, or GLAAD, the gay media watchdog. My visit was the same weekend as Phoenix’s Gay Pride a few miles away.

I came late for the trip, and missed the desert nature parts of the visit, one to the Desert Botanical Gardens, and another a hike on the Apache Trail, which many would say are highlights of any trip there. I did, however, arrive at the Marriott Buttes Lodge in Tempe just in time for my massage. Arizona is famous for its spas––just look at any spa magazine. Next to golf, massage and relaxation are major reasons people visit the state.

In this spa, I wound up with a guy with a heavy outer borough accent named Anthony ready to work me over. That was when I started thinking—what gives with all these Italian names? Arizona felt like a “Sopranos” episode. Neil Giuliano? Janet Napolitano the Democratic governor, and now Anthony the handsome, Sicilian-American whose hands made me forget all my East Coast stress.

Then I remembered another phone conversation, this one with Don Hamill, vice president of Phoenix Pride. Transplants. Not hair, not hearts, but people. Italians didn’t come off the boat to Arizona, but their descendents, like Tony here, have arrived. Hamill explained that people move there to the tune of nearly 180,000 a year, bringing more open attitudes––and ethnic names. In the 1980s, during the Martin Luther King Day scandal, 1.5 million lived in the Valley, as the Phoenix-Tempe metropolitan region is known to the locals, an area that now houses 3.8 million. A quarter of a million of them are LGBT, Hamill estimated.

“It’s become a more diverse, expansive place,” he said. “Would I call it liberal? No. Would I call it progressive? Yes.”

That night, we mixed with a few dozen gay and lesbian locals during Echo Night at the Gammage Auditorium for the national tour of “Stomp,” a joint effort between Gammage, part of Arizona State University, and Echo, the local gay publication. Free drinks, free food and the chance to meet someone special were draws.

This was the first event where I saw Giuliano. He excitedly mentioned he’d been a part of the presidential debates in 2004 when they were held here.

“You should have seen it when it was decorated with flags all over,” he said.

Now living in between New York and Los Angeles for GLAAD, you could tell he misses home. He is proud of his city, his country, and the building. Gammage Auditorium was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last major buildings, opened in 1964. It wasn’t intended for Tempe––it was designed for Baghdad. Political unrest in the Middle East kept the design stateside. Indeed, Gammage has the suggestion of Islamic architecture, but more along the lines of the Barbara Eden’s “I Dream of Jeannie Baghdad” than CNN’s. Still, set amid dry desert air and palm trees, you could easily imagine being in Baghdad, but in happier pre-Saddam, pre-Bush days.

I also met Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, in charge of public events at ASU, that evening. Like Anthony, like Giuliano, like so many others I was meeting, she too was a transplant. She’s African American, so naturally, I brought up Martin Luther King Day and how it still comes up in conversations about the state. She smiled and put her right hand to the edge of her face and, imitating a conversation she had with her mother when she told her were she was heading. “Arizona? Are you sure?” She hung up the phone and said to me, “I think we’ve grown up,” since that time, and in spite of her mother’s worries, she said she feels “grounded” in Arizona.

Jennings-Roggensack was a Clinton White House appointee on the National Council on the Arts, involved in the oversight of the National Endowment of the Arts. She uses her current position to bridge gaps between people of different parties and ideologies, rather than widen them. She was responsible for bringing “Angels in America” to Arizona, something that surprised everyone involved.

“We asked them to take the risk and they sold out,” she explained, saying the play spawned none of the problems it attracted in other conservative places. “We put the work in a context, we made the community feel welcome.” Focusing on the religious issues explored in “ Angels,” Jennings-Roggensack said she brought church groups to her side.

She was most animated when talking about her success in making Broadway commercially viable at Gammage without cutting quality.

“We bring in the numbers, we bring in the audience” she said, explaining that she has as sophisticated an audience as New York. “They come and they say it was better here. They rebuild for the tour. You can’t put junk on the road.”

“Wicked” is headed there in August, and I mentioned that some New Yorkers interpret the play as a criticism of the Bush administration, with its secondary plot about war being made under false pretenses as a crazed leader takes away civil liberties. No one at Gammage had heard that interpretation, but it did not ruffle Jennings-Roggensack’s feathers.

She also worked on Barry Goldwater’s funeral at Gammage, a topic that reminded her of the old conservative warhorse’s dedication to his gay grandson, an example Jennings-Roggensack said that exemplifies the contrasts of Arizona.

Despite the fact that in Tempe, as in L.A., all travel is done by car, after seeing “Stomp,” we walked to Tempe’s Mill Avenue District to drop by Caffe Boa. Though named for the feathery accessory drag queens love, the club is not a gay bar, but we did run into a group of gay men there from Arizona State University’s gay Sigma Phi Beta. They were an adorable lot, but these boys didn’t want us thinking they were just a bunch of twinks. They talked about setting an example for the wider Tempe community, the fraternity’s president Sam Holdren explaining that its name––Sigma represents change, Phi, masculinity, and Beta, history—reflected an important philosophy. A native of Fresno, California––“ hardly a place I feel for gay rights”––Holdren said, “When I came here, the fraternity really created that safe space for me.”

He said that even for those not in the fraternity SPB created “opportunity for all the gay people.” The fraternity, supported and respected by others on campus, can often “take a lead on Greek issues.”

“The big thing about fraternities is we’re for outreach in the community,” Holdren explained, noting that SPB members volunteer for Body Positive and work with homeless youths. The fraternity works to “allow people to develop themselves, as strong leaders in the community.”

The following day had a big pink circle around it––Phoenix’s Gay Pride. Hanging out the Echo office along the route, I was able to photograph the festivities. With not many floats and lots of space between them, Phoenix’s Pride is easier to document. My images of floats and rainbow flags with vast asphalt expanses behind them were as much symbols of Arizona as the skyscrapers and fire escapes in the background of photos I take at home.

Hamill had already warned me that his event was very different from New York’s.

“There’s two different worlds of gay pride,” he declared. Politics and parades were a legacy of the East Coast, while in the Sunbelt it was “the picnic, big outdoor celebrations” that make the day.

Giuliano was once again on hand.

“The thing that makes it most special is it’s home,” he said. “I’ve invited everyone to my home. Nothing would make me prouder than to host more LGBT people.”

The parade was in Phoenix, but Giuliano called it “the Valley Parade,” since it draws people from all over the area. He hopes to incorporate gay Tempe events as part of the annual pride weekend.

As he and I watched the parade, what I noticed immediately was the huge number of gay religious groups, somewhere around of a quarter of the roughly 125 contingents in the parade. Giuliano admitted he had never noticed that before, but said religious groups will surely play an increasing role in the future of gay rights.

“This is how we’re going to get equality because these people are in church with them,” he said. “Look at all these welcoming congregations.”

No Longer Silent is a coalition of 125 church groups led by a priest defrocked for being openly gay. The coalition’s work, Giuliano said, is an “only in Phoenix,” thing that offers an example for the rest of the country.

The Echo’s editor promised me visits by porn stars, so when a vaguely familiar handsome man who in my mind could have come from that crowd happened by, I figured that part of my weekend was underway. But I was wrong. It was only after Giuliano said, “Did you meet Steve?” that I realized who the man was––another gay Republican and former politician, Steve May, who had served in the State Legislature.

When the Martin Luther King holiday came up, May said, “That’s no longer our reality, fortunately,” then made sure to add, “There’s a piece of the equation that’s always missing in that discussion.” Arizona, after turning out the governor who fought the holiday—through impeachment—was the only state to make it a reality at the ballot box.

“We’re not conservative,” May said, arguing that the label libertarian was more appropriate. Of a potential anti-gay marriage amendment this fall, he sounded confident, of beating it back, saying, “We’ll be the first place” to do so, due to Arizona’s “Old West live and let live mentality.”

Once the parade ended, I wandered to the Gay Fair, held on the grounds of a former Indian reservation made into a park where ironically I had the chance to chat with members of the local Two-Spirit group Native Out, which got as many cheers in the parade as the typical sentimental favorite P-FLAG. Louva Hartwell, the co-director said it was “the largest contingent we’ve ever had and the first time we’ve had a float so it was a big deal. With every Pride we get, we have more members and more interest.”

Back in Tempe’s Mill Avenue district, I checked out the Tempe Arts Festival, where the roads were blocked off as artists, photographers, and others sold their wares, held simultaneously with the Tempe Music Festival, a several-days-long celebration of all kinds of music, held at the other end of the street. Little wonder that the airport had such a heavy metal goth feel to it when I landed.

In a cab headed back to my hotel, my driver Ali told me he was from Karbalah, as in Iraq. He explained that about 3,000 Iraqi immigrants live in the Phoenix area, most of whom like him fled in the wake of the first Gulf War. Ali explained that the climate of the Valley made him feel at home, and that he faced few problems there as a Muslim. Knowing from my global travels that Middle Easterners are more accepting of homosexuality than we give them credit for, I let Ali know I was a gay journalist, writing about Pride. When I mentioned the U.S. military’s firing of Arab linguists for being gay, he said, “That’s stupid, just because they’re gay?”

That night at dinner, gay Republican politicians weren’t just on the menu, they owned the place. We ate at Cheuvront, a restaurant owned by Tom Simplot, a gay Phoenix city councilman, whom I had spied marching with his partner John David Smith. As the couple went by I heard in the crowd route shouting, “Oh wave to the first lady.” I mentioned my friend’s comment about Arizona gays all being Republicans to Simplot, who responded, “Historically they have been the only ones really getting elected.”

“I have been a Republican long before the party was taken over by the right wing,” he said, explaining that many gays in Arizona simply grew up in the party.

After dinner, we danced the night away in Amsterdam, a gay club in downtown Phoenix, which at night is largely a desolate collection of empty parking lots with buildings every now and then. Because it empties out after dark, however, Phoenix allows for something that hasn’t existed in New York in years. The club was open-faced, a patio just off the dance floor, the loud music filtering outside––no neighbors and community boards to complain. With a light-rail commuter system under development, promising greater density in a region traditionally known for sprawl, it is just a matter of time before downtown becomes residential—which may tamp down the gay scene’s exuberance.

Standing outside of Amsterdam, the loud music blasting behind me, the cool urban desert air hitting me, I reflected on what I’d seen during a short weekend. Buildings that should have been in Baghdad, Iraqi cab drivers that think it’s stupid to fire Arabic translators simply because they’re gay, gays who can’t win elections unless they’re Republican, and religious people who love a gay parade. That’s a lot of contradictions all in one place, but that’s how Arizona seems to work. It’s come a long way since the last time I was here, half a lifetime ago.

WHO, WHAT, WHERE, ETC…

The Buttes, A Marriott Resort

2000 Westcourt Way Tempe

Phone: 602-225-9000

marriott.com

$220-$500 per night

This sprawling complex is built into a flat-topped mountain known as a butte, hence its name. Two pools, one with a waterfall and hot tubs scattered throughout the grounds. Two restaurants, and a very generous weekend brunch buffet in their top floor restaurant for $35 a person. Their relaxing but small spa is called Narande, offering several treatment options.

Fiesta Inn Resort

2100 South Priest Drive Tempe

Phone: 480-967-1441

1-800-528-6481

fiestainnresort.com

$60-$200 per night

If you think this place reminds you of Frank Lloyd Wright, you are not far off the mark. Its distinctive copper accents and stained glass windows are clues that it was designed by a student of his. 270 rooms, all with free Internet access, surround a central pool and garden complex.

Desert Botanical Garden

1201 North Galvin Parkway

Phoenix

dbg.org

Phone: 480-941-1225

A living museum of more than 50,000 desert plants from around the world. The desert is alive in this unique space with trails full of beautiful plants and small desert animals and insects.

ASU Gammage

1200 South Forest Avenue

Tempe, Arizona

Phone: 480-965-3434

asugammage.com

Concert hall space designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and part of Arizona State University, originally planned for Baghdad. When Broadway tours, this is where they play. About once a month, Echo Night, the gay reception, is held, allowing a chance to mingle in a cultured setting with the local LGBT community. “Wicked” plays at the end of August.

Caffe Boa

398 South Mill Avenue

Tempe

Phone: 480-968-9112

cafeboa.com

Just off the Mill Avenue District, the only walkable area in Tempe, this bar and bistro has a patio for open air drinking and a warm bar atmosphere. Reasonably priced menu of pastas and other Italian cuisine, live music sometimes on offer. Entrees run about $10 to $20.

Cheuvront

1326 North Central Avenue

Phoenix

Phone: 602-307-0022

cheuvronts.com

Sophisticated downtown Arizona spot for fine dining just across from the Phoenix Library. European nouvelle cuisine, and great wine selection. The restaurant is owned by openly gay City Councilman Tom Simplot and consistently selected as a top Arizona spot by foodie magazines. Entrees run about $15 to $25.

Amsterdam

718 North Central Avenue

Phone: 602-258-6122

Large gay bar and dance club in downtown Phoenix with all your favorite gay shenanigans from strippers to drag shows to dancing all you want. Open patio in front for looking at Phoenix’s famous parking lots while you drink chat and smoke. Men and women and their straight and whatever friends play well together here.

Echo Magazine

echomag.com

The local gay magazine, available all over the Phoenix area. Its Web site has a local gay guide feature.

Phoenix Pride

phoenixpride.org

Tempe Travel Information

tempecvb.com

Phone: 800-283-6734

Phoenix Travel Information

visitphoenix.com

Phone: 602-254-6500

Gay Arizona Information

visitgayarizona.com

Services

gaycitynews.com

More from Around NYC

>