New York Times looks into Eureka Springs, the gay-friendliest Arkansas town

Before I get to that New York Times piece on gay tourism in the Ozarks, let me share a bit of first-person experience in that fascinating region.

About 18 months ago, my daughter and I visited Eureka Springs in northwest Arkansas. I felt like I’d been transported back into the 1960s as there were all manner of funky stores selling books, jewelry and other paraphernalia straight out of the hippie era. One walks down narrow winding streets past fountains and springs (it was quite the place to take the waters back in the 1880s) to stay at a historic hotel that has old-fashioned door keys the size of your wallet.

We didn’t have enough time to see the town’s famed Great Passion Play, overseen by a gigantic statue of Christ, but the chatter I heard at our B&B was that its future was in some danger. This is not an international phenomenon like the decennial Passion Play in Oberammergau, so the audience is limited for such spectacles. Churches and Christian youth groups used to getting entertainment off Netflix aren’t exactly racing to go to an outdoor theater to see a story they already know.

But the town itself was such a delight with stone Victorian houses out of "Arsenic and Old Lace," museums and tons of cool hikes through the canyon the city is located in. Plus, there's the beautiful Thorncrown Chapel just west of the city. So it wasn’t a huge surprise to see that the Springs was trying other avenues to get people to visit. The New York Times just reported that one market was gay travelers. In this sort-of Bible Belt territory, not everyone is happy about that.

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — The Rev. Randall Christy was sitting in the amphitheater of “The Great Passion Play“ Friday afternoon, two weeks before opening night. Below him, amid a stage set meant to evoke ancient Jerusalem, a cast member in a baseball cap took Pontius Pilate’s horse-drawn chariot on a practice run.
But Mr. Christy was speaking about more contemporary troubles nearby, in the gay-friendly little tourist town over the hill.
Mr. Christy and his allies here contend that Christian visitors are the foundation of the tourism trade in Eureka Springs, a Victorian-era spa town of 2,100 residents in northwest Arkansas near the Missouri border. For nearly five decades, those visitors have flocked to the Passion Play, the seasonal outdoor depiction of Jesus’ final days that is presented in this 4,000-seat amphitheater. But in recent years, Mr. Christy said, those tourists have become more reluctant to visit Eureka Springs because of efforts to promote the town as the “Gay Capital of the Ozarks.”
“I think that is a mistake,” said Mr. Christy, the pastor of Union Valley Baptist Church in Ada, Okla., and founder of a gospel radio network who has operated the nonprofit Passion Play since late 2012. “Family vacation destination should be the thrust of this town again.”

The hook for the story is an upcoming vote on an ordinance that forbids discrimination against gays in terms of housing, employment and other services.

Now, the Times did not specify whether there had been discrimination in the past, which seems a bit unlikely given the counter-cultural nature of the place. But this is Arkansas, when the Klan has a stronghold not far from Eureka Springs and the state legislature barred local governments from including sexual orientation or gender identity in anti-discrimination laws. However, the city of Little Rock is challenging that law.

In terms of the actual news coverage, I would have liked to have read about any incidents that led to the ordinance. Isn't that crucial information?

So I looked around for other pieces on this issue and found some interesting snippets in this Boston Globe piece, namely that Eureka Springs is the only city in the state with a domestic partners registry. The Globe piece twice referred to the Springs as "gay friendly" and how there are jokes elsewhere in the state about the town’s gay population.

Then there’s this homosexual tourism site that characterizes the Springs as the “gay capitol of the Ozarks” and gives you an idea of what all the same-sex activity looks like. The town has three “diversity weekends,” it says, which attract “thousands of gaycationers.” Or this link, which puts the Springs on par with Key West, Provincetown and Palm Springs as top American gay vacation spots.

So it's not a huge surprise that some of the locals are digging in their heels. There’s been a lot said as to whose fault it is that the Passion Play has fallen on hard times but agree with it or not, it creates jobs as well as any other business in town. There’s also this piece in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that says the president and CEO of the local chamber of commerce was fired over this issue in March and that the chamber board chairman resigned at the same time along with six chamber members. So it’s obvious there’s some back story here.

The concerns of the Christians bring up some interesting questions. Say you’re planning to visit Disney World at the beginning of June and you find out you’ll be there at the same time as about 50,000 red-shirted gay attendees. Would you take your elementary-age children there the same week to see some really risqué behavior?

If yes, then read no further. If no or not sure, watch this YouTube video on Disney’s Gay Days (or Gay Week, as it’s become). That’s what some Arkansans are afraid Eureka Springs could become, which, of course, means that this is part of the debate. Perhaps that should make this information part of the Times story?

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