At an international conference in Philadelphia, a volunteer from the Opera Omaha Guild spoke about its award-winning fundraisers — featuring drag queens lip-synching classic arias at an Omaha gay dance club.
“I had to give the presentation twice, it was so popular,” said Lisa Hagstrom, 39. “The majority of people there were older, and they all loved it. A man in his 80s told me it was the coolest idea.”
Most gay people are neither cross-dressers nor flamboyant. But are the opera guild's fundraisers at a gay club an example of a growing acceptance of “gayness” in America?
Lisa, who is straight, said practically all who attended the guild's female-impersonator fundraisers in 2011 and 2012 at the Max dance club downtown were heterosexual.
Men dressing as women onstage goes back at least to the days of Shakespeare. But the fresh fundraising approach by the opera guild — wine-tasting parties, Lisa said, had grown stale — merited an innovation award at the June conference of Opera Volunteers International.
The topic of homosexuality still can produce controversy. Emotions ran high when the Omaha City Council in March voted 4-3 to pass an ordinance protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination.
Some believe homosexual acts are sinful. The Gallup Organization, though, says Americans' support for the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations crossed “the symbolic 50 percent threshold” in 2010.
In May of this year, Gallup said public acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships had grown from 38 percent in 2002 to 54 percent. The validity of same-sex marriage was accepted by 50 percent. (The poll questioned 1,024 adults; the possible margin of error was said to be 3 percentage points.)
“We still have quite a ways to go,” said Beth Rigatuso, 47, of Omaha, “but I never would have believed how far we'd have come by this point.”
Beth, a lesbian long active in issues affecting the gay community, is president of the nonprofit group Heartland Pride. She and Erin Anderson, 36, helped organize a July vigil against hate crimes.
The “Vigil Against Violence” at Memorial Park took place after a lesbian in Lincoln reported that three masked men had broken into her home, bound her and cut epithets about her sexual orientation into her arms and stomach. The report drew national attention and was widely discussed on the Internet.
Last week, the woman — Charlie Rogers, 33, a former University of Nebraska-Lincoln basketball player — was charged with false reporting. Authorities allege it was a hoax, that her wounds were either self-inflicted or inflicted with the cooperation of someone else. She has pleaded not guilty.
“If she is found guilty of doing this to herself,” Beth said, “it speaks to a bigger societal ill. Mental health issues by and large get so disregarded.”
Beth said holding the vigil was important because it spoke against all hate crimes. She said people should not judge a group on the actions of any individual.
Erin said her biggest fear of a hoax is that it will stop others who actually do suffer from bullying or hate crimes from reporting them for fear of not being believed.
“That's why it's so important for us to keep speaking out,” she said. “To tell people they are not alone.”
Beth and Erin both grew up in Omaha. Beth graduated from Westside High School and says she is a couple of courses short of a degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She operates a video production and photography company, Catch Creative.
Erin graduated from Duchesne Academy, attended UNL and earned a degree at UNO. She married and had three children (now 10, 7 and 5), and then divorced. She has a same-sex spouse, Allison, whom she legally married in Iowa.
Erin, a child-care provider, says most gay people “don't want special rights; we just want to be normal.”
Beth recalls watching in tears with a large group in 1997 when Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom character disclosed that she was a lesbian. Other shows, such as today's “Modern Family,” also portray gay people as normal.
By the time CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper came out as gay this year, it was a nonissue for many. For others, homosexuality remains an issue, and many disagree with President Barack Obama's support for same-sex marriage.
But the landscape has changed. Beth, whose Heartland Pride group sponsors the annual Pride Festival, said the June 30 event at Stinson Park on the old Ak-Sar-Ben property drew about 4,000 people, including many nongay “allies.”
The festival also included a record 63 vendor booths — for insurance, travel, entertainment, jewelry, pizza, pets, churches, electronics and more.
“Our intention for the Pride Festival,” she said, “is to be proud of who we are. We're ... a whole rainbow of people — police officers, doctors, lawyers. We come from all walks of life.”
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