Only two months after his election, a North Kansas City councilman is already faced with calls to leave office or possibly be removed by voters after his comments angered and insulted many in the LGBT community and others.
Council member Wesley Graves, 1st Ward, has faced criticism this week for his comments linking LGBTQ sexual orientations with pedophilia or satanism.
He has not signaled he is willing to resign his newly won seat on the City Council. But some activists, leaders and fellow elected officials question whether he can continue to represent the voters he was picked to serve.
Two council members and the mayor have wondered aloud if Graves is able to continue representing the district considering its makeup and the attitudes of the residents he represents. Members of a city committee tasked with increasing diversity and inclusion in North Kansas City want some form of action taken, and haven’t ruled out a recall. And many residents on social media have called for him to leave office.
“I think he should probably consider it,” said City Council member Lisa Tull, 2nd Ward, when asked if Graves should step down. “I think what he did was divisive. And it was insulting. And it’s the kind of derogatory thing that increases hate. And I don’t think that has any place in any government, let alone a town of 5,000 people where we all literally know each other.
“I’ve lived here 15 years, a lot of people have lived here a long time, we all know each other,” Tull added. “That attacked people that I love. And that’s not OK.”
Council member Amie Clarke, a member of the LGBT community, said in a statement she does not not know “if [Graves] is fit to serve as a voice for all of his constituents” given what he said. She said he appears to be “still missing the mark relative to the impact of toxic and inappropriate comparisons” and his statements “only illuminate how out-of-touch he actually is from people who don’t look, live or worship like he does.”
Clarke said it was not her place to decide whether Graves should stay in office, and it is up to the residents he represents. In the meantime, she is advocating for council members to receive sensitivity training.
Graves’ comments came earlier this week while the City Council was discussing a proposal to establish a diversity pledge for its businesses and organizations.
Those who signed the pledge would get a city-issued sticker to put on display as a way to show visitors that the establishment welcomes visitors regardless of factors including race, religion, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation or income.
When the topic of the “NKC United” pledge came up Tuesday night, Graves announced himself a Christian and questioned how churches like his would have to accept members from other religions in their doors, saying the concept “rips my brain apart.”
He also contended that having a local government create a list of businesses that sign on to the agreement would be harmful to those that choose not to.
“Once you go down this road, where do you draw the line?” Graves said during the meeting, his first in City Hall since being elected. “I mean, you could start bringing up pedophilia, Satan worshipers, etc.”
That language, along with his sentiment generally, angered members of the LGBT community who have long been wrongly associated with pedophilia by anti-gay groups. And it offended many across the metro area.
For his part, Graves has since apologized, saying he did not intend to cause harm to anyone.
He said he is supportive of LGBT rights and is “not a bigot” as some have suggested. In an interview with The Star this week, he said he was not seriously considering a resignation. And he said he sees the event as a learning experience he hopes will be accepted by the community as he seeks to move forward.
“I learned from it, I really did,” Graves said. “And moving forward, obviously, I will choose my words more carefully, because I don’t want to harm people. I don’t want to be divisive. And I don’t want to cause shame to my community that I love very much.”
But his apologies have rung hollow for many, especially among members of the LGBT community like Jessica Loya, a North Kansas City resident and founder of a special city committee tasked with pushing for increased diversity in the town.
“He apologized if potentially his words were misconstrued as words of hate or bigotry, but he never once took accountability for what he said and or how it affected members of the LGBTQ+ community like myself,” Loya said.
“He hopes that we’re just going to forget about it and move past it. I’ve seen some comments that are similar like, ‘Hey, can’t we just stop talking about this?’ And I understand. But at the same time, a public official should not have the ability to espouse bigoted hate in the middle of a city council meeting without it going unchecked.”
In the City Council meeting, Graves’ comments were immediately shut down by fellow council members. Among them was Clarke, who said the pledge and the welcome sticker provides a signal to people from protected classes that they will not be met with discrimination when they walk into a North Kansas City establishment.
Clarke said she saw a sticker for the Human Rights Campaign when she moved into her neighborhood.
“For me, being a member of the LGBTQ community and not forcing that upon anybody, I felt safe immediately,” she said. “It’s a visual that says I’m safe here and I’ll be welcome here.”
When the discussion turned back to Graves later, he again pointed out the language of the pledge related to sexual orientation and he named pedophilia as what he thought would be an example.
“We’re supposed to welcome people of all different sexual orientations and all different religions. And so, yes, those are extreme, horrible examples. But that just shows that it’s all-encompassing. That’s what this is saying.”
The measure passed 7-1, with Graves as the sole “no” vote. In the hours after, community members ridiculed him in a neighborhood private Facebook page — many calling upon him to resign immediately.
Since saying those words, Graves has now taken back his definition of pedophilia as a sexual orientation. He issued a public apology the following day, saying he recognized that he hurt people and described his comments as a failed attempt to make a point about his attitude about the limits of government in social issues.
Still, some question whether he will be able to move forward as an elected official in a city where residents and city staff are members of the LGBT community. Others, including victims of sexual abuse, have also taken offense to that comparison.
The words were heard all around the Kansas City area in the days after. Northland Pride, an organization that serves the LGBTQ community in Clay and Platte counties, issued a statement Thursday sharply condemning the comments.
“Bigoted statements like these are a reminder of why Northland Pride exists — to combat harmful narratives designed to ignite violence against our LGBTQIA+ family,” the statement said.
“We are saddened and appalled to learn that on Tuesday evening, North Kansas City council member Wes Graves publicly equated pedophilia with sexual orientation and the LGBTQIA+ community,” the group said. “For decades, this false, homophobic, and transphobic rhetoric has been used to build fear and distrust of the queer community.”
Others that came out against the statements included Justice Horn, a Kansas City community activist who has worked extensively on LGBT rights causes, and Kansas City First District Councilman Kevin O’Neill.
O’Neill said Graves should no longer be in public service, saying it sounded like “a slip of the tongue that has too much meaning.”
‘An embarrassment to the city’
Members of the City Council reached by The Star said his comments were not representative of the city as a whole. They also said his words were hurtful, divisive and shameful during a time when the city is striving to showcase a diverse and welcoming attitude.
And all suggested it is up to Graves to make amends with the community he represents, noting there could be a recall effort should his constituents decide he is unable to adequately represent them on the City Council.
“He has published an apology, and I think it’s up to the residents of Ward 1 to accept that or not,” said Councilman Anthony Saper, 1st Ward, who described the comments as “an embarrassment to the city of North Kansas City.”
Missouri law offers a route for a city council to remove a sitting member “for cause shown” with or without a recommendation from the mayor if two-thirds of the council members approve. In North Kansas City, the mayor only votes in tie-breaking situations.
Another path is a recall election, also outlined by state law. That statute requires a petition be signed by 25 percent of the voters in a district and can only be started six months after a council member is elected.
“I don’t think those comments really represent our ward or our city,” said Mayor Bryant DeLong, elected in April as well, who previously represented the seat Graves won during the last municipal election.
“It’s hard to see a path forward for him to be super successful, because it’s going to be hard for people to want to work with him,” the mayor added. “There’s a lot of collaboration here to get things done.”
DeLong said he has heard from many voters in the ward who are upset and disappointed with Graves. He is considering the possibility of some sort of formal punishment for Graves under the City Council rules. And if when the time comes there is a desire to hold a recall, he said he would be supportive.
“If that’s a process that folks want to get started, I’d certainly be supportive of whatever comes of that. Because the voters, they elect you, they put you in that position, and they’re the ones that hold you to that high standard or should be holding to you to that high standard.”
The Star’s Glenn E. Rice and Kevin Hardy contributed to this report.