On Wednesday night, the Comedy Central news-satire program aired the latest installment in its “People Who Are Destroying America” series. The segment is on Johnny Cummings, the openly gay mayor—and a part-time hairdresser—of Vicco, Kentucky, a hamlet of about 330 people. Vicco made news earlier this year when it became the smallest town in the United States to pass a ban on discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. (The ordinance passed by a 3-1 city-commission vote. According to Cummings, who introduced the ordinance to the city council, representatives from five other towns told him that they want to be the next ones to pass such a “fairness ordinance.”)
“Everything considered, I was remarkably pleased with the way [the Colbert segment] turned out,” Cummings tells Mother Jones.
“Russia‘s not the only place trying to defend its family values,” host Stephen Colbert says, referring to the culture war over America’s traditional “small-town morals,” as he introduces the clip. What follows is a touching, funny, and stereotype-pulverizing look at a tiny Appalachian town and how its residents feel about the anti-discrimination policy and their mayor. Watch it here:
“If God makes ’em born gay, then why is he against it?” a Vicco resident says, in the clip’s moving final moments. “I can’t understand that. I’ve tried and tried and tried to understand that, and I can’t.”
The night after the segment aired, Cummings told Mother Jones about why he agreed to do it. “We got a lot of attention after that New York Times article ran [in January], and we got these offers from production companies wanting to do all this crap,” Cummings recalls. The “crap” here refers to how five production companies, including that of ABC, have recently shown interest in filming a reality TV show in Vicco. “So when some of them called, I was often quite rude to them…But then I got a call from [The Colbert Report]. I always watch The Colbert Report…To get your point across, sometimes you just gotta laugh. That’s how I look at it. So I thought, okay, The Colbert Report would be perfect.”
The Comedy Central film crew came to town to shoot footage last February. The show also featured a pastor named Truman Hurt, the lone voice in the segment raising objections to the so-called gay lifestyle. The pastor’s objections, as well as local confusion over the legal specifics of the ordinance, were framed by some media outlets (such as MSNBC’s Maddow Blog) as a backlash and controversy. In Cummings’ view, no backlash actually occurred, and the town has been overwhelmingly supportive. “The only negative response we really got was the local TV station that played it up…and tried to cover it as ‘backlash,'” Cummings says. “If you check out my Facebook page, there’s not a negative thing on there about this. But some people tried to create a ‘backlash,’ I guess.”
The 50-year-old Cummings has been praised by residents and others for leading efforts to revitalize the Kentucky town’s infrastructure. Cummings is a Democrat (as is the majority of Vicco’s population) but has switched between Republican and Democratic party affiliation. Aside from his mayorship and his gig as a local hairdresser, he plays the blues on his saxophone in his spare time. He is also a big fan of Josephine Baker, the jazz singer and political activist who helped the French Resistance fight the Nazis.