The Disappointment in Mayor Keller of New Hope, PA
For those who follow my posts, I’ve been linking to articles about the mayor of New Hope, PA, which is also my own mailing address. I live about three miles from downtown New Hope. It’s a very small tourist town that I’ve written about before here. And recently there’s been a kerfuffle over the fact that the mayor of New Hope, Larry Keller, has refused to marry gay couples because same-sex marriage is illegal in Pennsylvania, unlike New York, which is about one hour away by car. I thought I would elaborate on this one more time for my readers because it is something that is deeply rooted in civil rights and LGBT history.
You can imagine the reaction the mayor has received from those who are same-sex couples in New Hope. In full disclosure, Mayor Keller has stated, though reluctantly, that he is supporting legal same-sex marriage in PA, however he’s not willing to risk the legal ramifications that accompany marrying same-sex couples right now while it is still illegal in PA. The liberal Democrat Mayor of Philadelphia has also made the same decision, because he doesn’t want to break the law by marrying same sex couples and promoting the concept of equal rights. And that really is what all this comes down to. It’s a pragmatic decision for both mayors in both places to uphold the laws whether these laws promote inequality or not. The law is the law. Fire is hot. All this came about when a straight married clerk in Montgomery Count, PA, decided to challenge the law himself, all alone, and issue marriage licenses to same sex couples in PA because he wanted to go down on the right side of history. Several of those couples went to New Hope and Philadelphia with their marriage licenses and both mayors refused to recognize them on the basis that it was against the law.
All this has spawned a firestorm between locals in New Hope about whether the mayor is right or wrong…from social media to e-mails. It’s recently become a fight between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s been nasty to say the least. But what most people outside of New Hope don’t know is the history behind the town, and values the town has always stood for. It’s not a typical small town in Pennsylvania, which is why Tony and I, and so many other same-sex couples, decided to live here years ago. At one time, it was the only town outside of Philadelphia (and most of New Jersey) that actually had multiple gay bars where gay people could congregate and meet without being harassed. And even then I personally recall nights when straight men driving down the road would shout pejoratives to gay men as they crossed the parking lot from their cars to the gay bar. It happened to me on several occasions and the only thing to do was keep walking, look down, and don’t stop until you got inside and took a deep breath.
The reason I opened my art gallery in New Hope and kept it for ten years back in the 1990’s was because New Hope was such a diverse community and always so accepting of all people, not just LGBT people. My late landlord was a man named Johnny Francis, who entertained celebrities that ranged from Diana Ross to Jackie Kennedy, in the 1960’s, because New Hope was a pit stop for the rich and famous who traveled between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. It’s always been a place where the arts were celebrated, from big Broadway musicals opening here to the New Hope School of art, now famous for its group of celebrated fine artists. I could link and continue, but I think most people get the point that New Hope is different than other small towns in very distinct ways.
We even started celebrating our own gay pride event about ten years ago, and then the New Hope Film festival began shortly after that. We entertain one of the largest antique auto shows in the country every August, where people from all over the country come and stay at guest houses and bed and breakfasts. It’s not unusual to go out to dinner here on a Saturday night and wind up sitting next to a film, TV, or rock star. And part of that reason is because of the diversity, and the way that diversity has always been celebrated. Back in the earlier days, New Hope was a place where mixed race couples could walk down Main Street hand in hand and no one would look at them twice. My former landlord where I had the gallery was the first in town to welcome gays during the 1950’s when no one else would dare to do that. He started the first drag shows in town, that brought even more people here on weekends. And always, the bottom line was diversity, equality, and absolute freedom to be who you are. And, this is all pre-Stonewall.
The Beat Generation was known to hang out in what used to called the Latin Quarter in New Hope. Alan Ginsberg lived here, and social activist Abbie Hoffman lived and died here in neighboring Solebury Township, PA, in 1989. So when the present Mayor of New Hope, Larry Keller, broke tradition and refused to marry same-sex couples recently, it wasn’t like this was happening any old place. It was happening in a place known for breaking tradition and non-conformity. It was happening in a place that has always been known to stand up for equal rights no matter what the cost. And that literally floored people to the most basic core, especially all the same-sex couples who have lived here, supported New Hope, and paid taxes to New Hope all these years.
So this entire ordeal that has spawned such controversy as a result of Mayor Keller’s decision, goes deeper than just following the law and being pragmatic. If there’s a law that states someone can only sit in the back of the bus and not up front, sooner or later someone is going to come along and challenge that unfair law and take a chance. Rosa Parks went down on the right side of history for doing this, and she was willing to pay the price at the time. Throughout history there have been brave people who have been willing to challenge unfair laws and they did what they had to do. Rosa Parks was even willing to get arrested for what she believed in, and she’s been dubbed the “First Lady of Civil Rights.”
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005) was an African-American civil rights activist, whom the U.S. Congress called “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”. Her birthday, February 4, and the day she was arrested, December 1, have both become Rosa Parks Day, commemorated in the U.S. states of California and Ohio.
It’s very hard to believe now that a human being in the United States of America could actually get arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus, but that’s how it was back then…until someone had the courage to challenge the rule and stand up for equality. And in refusing to marry same sex couples in New Hope, and in refusing the challenge the law that makes same-sex marriage illegal in PA, Mayor Keller broke tradition in New Hope and disappointed many people beyond repair. He sided with not only an unfair law, but also the wrong side of history. You can twist it, spin it, and turn it in any direction you want, but he chose the law, and it’s a law that discriminates. Because I believe that one day, fifty or sixty years from now, someone else will be writing something about inequality and referring to a time when same-sex marriage was illegal and finding that just as hard to believe as forcing good, decent human beings to the back of the bus.
It’s so easy to forget the way others have stood up to unfair laws that discriminate. From Rosa Parks’ own recollection:
When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, “Why do you push us around?” She remembered him saying, “I don’t know, but the law’s the law, and you’re under arrest.” She later said, “I only knew that, as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind.
According to Mayor Keller of New Hope, and Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia, the law is the law.