Originally from Michigan, Ron Oden was one of the first openly gay African-Americans to run for the mayor's office and win in the United States when he became the mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., in 2003. A gentleman and a scholar, he holds a bachelor of arts degree in history, sociology, and theology and masters degrees in theology and ethics studies. An ordained minister, Oden brings a bit of heart and soul to the politics of one of the gayest getaways in the world. Out Traveler Editor at Large Matthew Link recently sat down with the charismatic official in his sunny Palm Springs office to find out more about what being gay in this desert oasis is all about.
What brought you to Palm Springs?
I moved here over 15 years ago for anonymity. [Chuckles ironically.] I had been a minister before and [had been] married and divorced. When I first drove with my brother Reggie to Palm Springs and we passed the tramway on the outskirts of town, I told him to pull over. I started running up the hill toward the mountains. I ran and ran until I couldn't anymore and stopped. Reggie approached me and put a hand on my shoulder. Tears were streaming down my face, and I said, "I'm home." It was an epiphany, a life-altering experience coming here. I later got in touch with my sexuality here, and it was a good place to start my life over.
Is there something naturally therapeutic about the atmosphere of Palm Springs?
The Cahuilla Indians called this valley "In the Palm of God's Hand." There is something magical about coming around that mountain; all the cares you had before that bend are somehow lifted. You're in another world. But some people get so comfortable here that they think it's the real world--and forget that around that mountain is a different world. Some residents live here like tourists, and their cocktail hour gets earlier every day. The atmosphere here can swallow you up.
What makes Palm Springs especially popular for gays coming from other parts of the country?
Palm Springs has a history of being open and accepting. Businesses and establishments have to be gay-friendly here to be successful. One difference between Palm Springs and other places is that gays are integrated into everything--politics, entertainment, business. There is a variety of gay venues here and no line of demarcation between gay and straight places. Establishments are for people. You can be expressive here and be safe.
What do you see on the horizon for gay development in the area?
During my 12 years on the city council here, three or four companies have come with plans on building a gay retirement center in the area. If any place is ripe for that, this is.