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Small US town with gay rights rules in spotlight

September 23, 2013

VICCO, Kentucky (AP) — Eight months after the tiny Appalachian town of Vilco, Kentucky, took a stand against gay-based discrimination, it’s basking in a flurry of attention and even an infusion of much-needed cash. All that hoopla has its openly gay mayor dreaming of reviving a place that had long seemed past its prime.

Out-of-towners occasionally venture well off the interstate highway to make the trek to the fading coal town of about 330 residents where an aging row of buildings lines one side of the block-long downtown. Railroad tracks run along the other side, though trains rarely go by anymore.

Visitors pose for pictures in front of the city hall or shake hands with Mayor Johnny Cummings, 51, a chain-smoking hair salon operator who grew up in the town, spent some time living on both coasts, and then returned back to socially conservative Kentucky.

“I thought the 15 minutes of fame would have been over a long time ago,” Cummings said.

Not even close. The town may even become the setting for a reality-based television show. Cummings said he expects to review a contract proposal soon from a production company, but doesn’t know which network might be interested.

He said he wants the show to focus on revitalizing the town.

“I don’t see us being that entertaining, but somebody else seems to think we’re a little unusual,” he said.

Perhaps even more welcome since passing the ordinance: a potential financial windfall for the cash-strapped town that has seen its population steadily decline.

The town made national headlines when three of four commissioners voted in January to pass the ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. City leaders said at the time they simply thought it was the right thing to do, and today marvel at the attention that has followed.

After passage, letters of support poured in from across the country, along with a handful of letters condemning the ordinance, the mayor said. Money was tucked into some of the supportive letters, mostly in the range of $25 donations. A pastor from New England sent $40 to buy a round of beers for locals who appeared in a segment about Vicco by Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

A mother and son in California pledged to buy all the new playground equipment for a city park, a project that could reach $90,000, Cummings said. That isn’t to say the ordinance has been welcomed by all.

Area resident Kim Sturgill said it’s divisive. She’s heard some residents talk about moving away because of the ordinance, but Sturgill said she’s staying put, despite her objections.

“My thoughts were, they should have kept it in the closet,” she said. “What people do is their own business, but that really messes with the town.”

Vicco is by far the smallest of the five cities in Kentucky to adopt ordinances protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. . None appear to have gotten the amount of attention that Vicco has.

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