The Real Arizona Isn’t Anti-Gay

A native Arizonan and first-generation American argues homophobia is an outlier in the state’s tolerant and diverse culture.

Wednesday, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed an anti-gay bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians and pretty much anyone else on the basis of “religious freedom.” After mounting pressure from corporations, civil rights activists and the likes of Mitt Romney, John McCain—not to mention, the threat of the state losing the next Super Bowl, the Governor’s decision was finally made. This is just the latest of a streak of crazy to rival Miley Cyrus that’s pushed the people and the state of Arizona into the intense but at-least-its-a-dry heat of the national spotlight. In 2010 the same legislature passed a bill promoted by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio that was widely interpreted to be anti-immigrant and legalized racial-profiling that became law. In 2012, you saw Arizona crawl across the ticker at bottom of your TV screen when a law was passed allowing employers to deny health insurance coverage for contraception and made it easier to fire a woman for using birth control for “non-medical reasons.” But this isn’t my Arizona.

I grew up in the Grand Canyon State, a son of Korean immigrants that lived all over the Western United States before settling in Phoenix to raise a family. It was there that I spent the first 25 years of my life in a community that embraced us, helping me get from preschool to Arizona State University and eventually to working in the White House. From an early age, we learned about the history and pioneering spirit of early Arizonans that flourished in one of the largest and hottest deserts in the world to build a metropolitan region nearly as large as the Bay Area. We also learned about the five “C’s” every Arizonan knows about the state: copper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate. Crazy was never one of them.

My Arizona is a place full of sunshine and mariachi music, frequent community gatherings where neighbors traded spaghetti or tamale recipes for my mom’s kimchi (A mutual love of spicy foods was a great uniting force where I grew up). My PTA meetings were often bilingual, and our school plays featured black and female presidents far before the likes of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton came to prominence. When the rest of the country was still digging out from winter’s slush, our mothers chased us with bottles of SPF 30, and fathers played hooky with their children to catch spring training baseball. And while there were precious few other families that looked like mine, our neighbors never made that a reason to discriminate but an excuse to get to know one another better.

In spite of what the Arizona legislature would have you believe, the Grand Canyon State has historically been a vibrant melting pot that only thrived when we worked and lived together. My own experience as a first-generation Korean-American growing up in Phoenix is indicative of what I still believe to be the true nature of Arizonans, a live-and-let-live way of life that honors hard work, justice, opportunity and family.

To be sure, there are remnants of an Old West mentality of a rugged, tough-minded, if not slow to change attitude. Arizona’s political landscape has always been as complex as its physical one. Arizona has elected four female governors, the most of any state in the country. In 2006, the state became the first to reject a ban on gay marriage but then passed a ban just two years later. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the state struggled over whether to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which ultimately led to a losing bid to host its first Super Bowl.

Many supporters of the recent anti-gay legislation claim to be conservatives defending freedom—but that’s not even Arizona conservatism. After all, Arizona was the home of Mr. Conservative himself, Barry Goldwater. The late Arizona senator and 1964 Republican presidential nominee long believed gays should be able to serve openly in the military effectively putting him to the left of President Bill Clinton on the issue at the time.

The fact of the matter is that those behind the bill don’t represent what it means to be an Arizonan. They’re part of a vocal fringe trying to out-crazy itself while hurting families, the state’s economy, and our freedom loving way of life. But, then again, there is one place in Arizona where fossils and artifacts from an ancient time, like those who pushed Senate Bill 1062, fit in; Petrified Forest National Park.