PALM SPRINGS – This desert oasis’ new, all-LGBT City Council will convene officially for the first time , and its members – three gay men, a transgender woman and a bisexual woman – have plotted their agenda: a law preventing anti-gay discrimination, a mammoth gay community center and, in lieu of Casual Fridays, Lavender Tuesdays, when municipal employees wear festive colors and hum their favorite Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand or Madonna tunes.
Kidding! Palm Springs has long had legal protections for gays, the community center exists, and when I met at various points Tuesday with the five council members – including the mayor, Robert Moon, who’s really a councilman with extra ceremonial duties – I discovered a sartorially subdued lot. While one of the women wore a purple jacket and the other a pink top, the three men didn’t have a single bold color from the rainbow flag among them.
So what does it mean that for the first time in this storied city’s history – and, it seems, the first time in the history of any city with the national profile of Palm Springs – not a single elected official at its helm identifies as straight? Is this a revolution or a wrinkle? A triumph of diversity or something slightly different?
That’s exactly what the council members themselves are trying to figure out.
“As the last bit of confetti is being swept up, some concerns have replaced elation,” said J.R. Roberts, a semiretired designer, who, along with Moon and Geoff Kors, began his four-year term on the council in 2015. “I really don’t want us to be known as the queer council. I want this to be about the things we accomplish.”
As he sipped tequila in a tropical-themed restaurant here that still serves a pu-pu platter, his mood turned reflective. “What happens when you cross the finish line?” he asked. “What’s the price of that? What’s the benefit?” He added another question: Do your obligations differ from any other elected official’s?
In the balloting on Nov. 7, the council’s two open seats went to Lisa Middleton, 65, the first transgender person elected to any nonjudicial office in California, and Christy Holstege, 31, who identifies as bisexual. Both had more than double the votes of the third-place finisher. Middleton got the most votes of all, perhaps because she’d been endorsed not only by gay rights groups but also by police officers, firefighters, the local newspaper’s editorial board and seemingly every other organization of consequence in Palm Springs.
That underscored the extraordinary journey of this city – and this country – over the past three decades. It was here in 1987 that Liberace, a longtime resident, died of complications related to AIDS after years of refusing to acknowledge his homosexuality and laying the blame for a sudden, significant weight loss on a watermelon diet gone wrong. While his secrecy had much to do with his own peculiarities, it also had to do with America back then. We wore thick blinders. We made cruel judgments.
In many places and at many moments, we still do. But not in Palm Springs. While the names of streets and structures here commemorate its Rat Pack and Republican pasts – there’s Frank Sinatra Drive and, at the airport, the Sonny Bono Concourse – its present is progressive and very, very gay. Democrats handily outnumber Republicans. The local officials I spoke with guessed that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the city’s residents are gay or lesbian.
The old City Council had just one straight person on it. Moon, a 68-year-old former Navy officer, is the city’s third openly gay mayor. When we chatted, he went through the government’s gay roll call. The city manager: gay. The assistant city manager: gay. The newly hired city clerk: gay.
“You see why having an all-gay City Council is no big deal?” he told me. “Nobody cares anymore.”
Palm Springs so thoroughly embraces LGBT people that Holstege, who is married to a man, faced questions about whether she was inventing her bisexuality for political gain.
“Social media started to trash her,” said Roberts, 57, who supported her candidacy. “They were saying she’s not really bi, maybe she had an experience in college, and now she wants to sweep up gay dollars and gay votes. So I called her up one day and said: ‘Christy, I’m making the weirdest call I’ve ever made in my entire life. You’re being accused of being fake gay, fake bi. This is a whole new world for me. This is a parallel universe.’”
He was backing her, he said, because of her erudition – she has a law degree from Stanford – and her expertise regarding homelessness and affordable housing. But he did care about her truthfulness and wanted her assurance that her critics were off base. She gave that to him.
She gave it to me, too, and said that during her campaign, she in fact shied away from talk about sexual orientation. When I asked her what the new council’s first order of business should be, she mentioned making it easier for people at the airport to summon Uber or Lyft.
In general the City Council race included little talk about identity politics. Middleton told me that she was seldom asked about being a transgender woman but routinely fielded questions about downtown development and the city’s budget, subjects she knew well because of her extensive involvement in civic organizations. High on her wish list for the city is six more police officers and four more firefighters. That was among her campaign promises.
I asked the police chief, Bryan Reyes, about her victory. He was jubilant. “I just believe – I really believe – in her,” he said. “I’m a straight male. I have no problem doing photo ops, giving her hugs, because of the person she is, what she represents, her work ethic, her character.”
When she and I had lunch, servers and others rushed over to congratulate her. “Do we refer to you as ‘City Councilwoman' or just plain Lisa?” asked one of the restaurant’s owners, John Paschal.
“Her Exalted,” Middleton suggested, and they both laughed. Then she went back to bending my ear about spurring entrepreneurship in Palm Springs.
She sees the city, which has a population of just under 50,000 people, as a beacon of inclusion. But she also sees it as an example of how Americans “have been sorting ourselves,” with liberals and conservatives in separate enclaves. (The new council is entirely Democratic.) And she has mixed feelings about that. “We get our information from different newspapers,” she said. “We live in different communities. We’re becoming not just polarized but isolated.”
Roberts echoed that over dinner at that tropical-themed restaurant with his fellow councilman Kors, 56, a lawyer and longtime gay rights advocate. “Isn’t our goal not to be separated out?” he said. He confessed to some worry that after the election, “The straight community might wake up and say, ‘Do we matter?’”
“Because that’s how we always felt?” Kors asked.
Roberts: “Really good point.”
Kors: “So our job is to prove that being gay has nothing to do with our policies.”
Roberts: “What I think I will do is overcompensate on issues that make straight people feel included.”
That shouldn’t be tough, because none of the council members talked with me about any issue with an LGBT focus. Palm Springs has been there and done that. Roberts and Kors spent much of their energy during their first two years on the council fashioning regulations for short-term rentals that preserve the city’s quality of life. They plan to tackle affordable housing next.
As I listened to them, I realized that what they want to be is the post-gay government, in which LGBT people are prominent not because they mirror their constituents, which definitely matters, but because they have valuable skills.
Just imagine, Roberts said, if Palm Springs became a national model for eradicating homelessness – and that just happened to occur on this new council’s watch? What kind of signal might that send across the fault lines of this fractured land?
“I feel a lot of pressure,” Roberts told me. “We are known as a gay community, and we need to project the cleanest, best government.”
They sure do, because Americans of all orientations desperately need that right now, and deserve it.