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Gays see shift in momentum toward acceptance in Alabama

But their causes are still enduring share of setbacks

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It's a Bible Belt state, almost certain to toughen its prohibition of gay marriage next month. A major candidate for governor has called homosexuality evil, and a national gay magazine branded Alabama the worst state for gays and lesbians.

So why does Howard Bayless want to stay?

His roots are in Alabama, he said. So are his friends. He's partial to the congenial neighborhood in Birmingham that he and other gays helped rescue from decline.

''This is where I've carved out a niche for myself," said Bayless, who has spent most of his 40 years in Alabama. ''We've created our community here, and I don't want to leave. I'd rather do the extra work of making my neighbors realize who and what I am."

The leader of Equality Alabama, a statewide gay rights group, Bayless is one of many with the same conviction. In Mobile, Tuscaloosa, and elsewhere, Alabama's gays and lesbians -- like their counterparts throughout the US heartland -- are slowly, steadily gaining more confidence and finding more acceptance.

Gay rights causes, however, still endure their share of setbacks -- amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman have passed in 19 states, and Alabama is poised to become number 20 by an overwhelming vote on June 6.

But in the long view, there has been a slow, powerful momentum building in the other direction: the quashing of antisodomy laws, the adoption of domestic partner policies by countless companies. Recent polls suggest opposition to gay marriage has peaked, and a proposed amendment to the US Constitution banning it is expected to fall far short of the required two-thirds' support when the Senate votes on it next month.

''What Americans see increasingly is there's no negative impact on their own lives to have gays and lesbians living out in the open," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. ''They go from an abstract idea to a real person with a real name and a real story. That makes all the difference."

Kim McKeand and Cari Searcy experience that phenomenon daily in Mobile, where they live openly as a lesbian couple raising a son, Khaya, whom McKeand gave birth to in September.

''We're out to everybody," said Searcy, 30. ''We know all the neighbors. Everyone else on our street is straight. They say, 'Hey.' They all wanted to come over and see the baby."

The couple met at college in Texas and moved to Mobile five years ago with $1,000 between them and no jobs, but their careers have blossomed. Searcy works for a video production company, McKeand for a broadcaster that provides domestic partner health benefits.

The couple loves Mobile, but may leave if Searcy's application to become Khaya's adoptive parent is rejected in court.

The courts weren't accommodating to social worker Jill Bates, who lives in Birmingham with her lesbian partner. She lost custody of her daughter, now 16, to her former husband after a legal battle in which her sexual orientation was held against her.

Yet Bates remains undaunted.

''One thing that gives me hope is seeing all my daughter's friends, even some who go to a fundamentalist church," Bates said. ''To them, it's just so not a big deal."

There are other signs of acceptance. An openly lesbian candidate, Patricia Todd, has a strong chance of winning a seat in Alabama's Legislature this year, and that would be a first. Gay-straight alliances are active at most universities.

Still, many Alabamians are dismayed that same-sex partnerships are recognized in Massachusetts and two other New England states, they resented the empathic portrayals of gays on the television sitcom ''Will & Grace" and in the film ''Brokeback Mountain" -- and they wonder whether states like Alabama can resist what the Rev. Tom Benz calls ''the erosion of traditional values."

''We're here in the Bible Belt, but all these things that happen around us affect us," said Benz, who combines mission work in Ukraine with the presidency of the conservative Alabama Clergy Council. ''There's a feeling here of 'I want my country back.'"

One of Benz's political allies is school board employee Donna Goodwin. ''I have a lesbian cousin. I can continue to love her without approving of the way she leads her life," she said.

Activists say the sternest antigay rhetoric comes from evangelical pastors and politicians. Among them is Republican gubernatorial candidate Roy Moore, who was ousted as state chief justice after refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument he had placed in the judicial building.

Moore has many fans and many critics, including Birmingham City Councilor Valerie Abbott. After the judge declared that homosexual conduct is ''abhorrent, immoral, detestable," Abbott persuaded the council to condemn those assertions.

Her district includes Howard Bayless's neighborhood, the Crestwood area. ''Gay people came in and took to that area and made it a wonderful place," Abbott said.

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