Civil rights laws must include sexual orientation, gender identity

civil rights laws must be include sexual orientation, gender identity

October 3, 2011 

Anna Kate McWhorter led the way as Bereans for Fairness held a rally and marched to city hall Sept. 20, when the Berea City Council voted to create a human rights commission.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

  • At issue | Sept. 21 Herald-Leader article, "Berea OKs rights commission; ordinance does not cover gays; advocates vow to keep up fight"

In a 6-1 vote, members of the Berea City Council approved the formation of a local human rights commission to investigate complaints of racial, sexual, religious, age and physical-disability discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations.

Billed as a step forward, or a "good start" in the words of Mayor Steve Connelly, the ordinance nonetheless effectively disenfranchised a segment of the community, omitting protections on the basis of perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

In other words, in Berea it remains legal to fire, evict or deny a table in a restaurant to anyone perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The following evening, two young men — one gay and one straight — took a stroll through town, passing city hall and the Municipal Building, where the council meeting was held. As they came to the corner of Chestnut and Boone Streets, a sports car roared up the road, slowing down when they spotted the pair. A man in the car shouted an expletive, followed by "faggots!" One of the passengers hurled a full bottle of water out the window, narrowly missing the men.

Coincidence, one might be tempted to say.

But there is a symbolic connection here, and it is a powerful one: When a government refuses to take the lead in protecting its own citizens under the law, it sets a dangerous precedent for the more primitive among us.

For the carload of bigots cruising through town and spotting two men to target, for the vocal resident who regularly attends council meetings with a gun magazine in tow, making sure that the pro-fairness community activists take note of the publication.

Such behavior is being emboldened by the delay of the city council.

With its missed opportunity to incorporate a fairness ordinance into the purview of the human rights commission, council members effectively played "kick the can" with its electorate. It put off any public vote on fairness protections to a later, yet-to-be determined date, despite hours of testimony in both public forums and private meetings on why the ordinance is a necessity.

Perhaps the council did not hear the crowd of over 400 citizens who flooded the council chambers and stood outside on the lawn and sidewalk chanting "Not enough" and "Love your neighbor as yourself" throughout the meeting.

Perhaps the members did not notice the sea of signs in front of the building that read "God is love" and "Hope will never be silent" and garnered honks of support from passing cars. Perhaps they did not glimpse 71-year-old Marlene Payne marching through town.

The longtime Berea resident, former Peace Corps volunteer and veteran of the civil rights movement, is a person who knows discrimination when she sees it.

Misjudging and underestimating the electorate is often a fatal error in politics, especially in a town like Berea, a community that has been and remains the cradle of progressive values in Eastern Kentucky. Instead of being a step forward, the passage of the human rights commission — a body originally established in the late 1960s and eventually dissolved a decade later — simply maintains the status quo.

Its reinstatement without fairness protections is an attempt at political appeasement. And it fails miserably.

During an era in which the expedient posturing of national politicians has contributed to a widespread cynicism about the profession itself, we have come to demand more from our local elected officials. We run into them buying produce at the local farmers' market and converse with them while standing in line at the bank.

For better or worse, these casual encounters have led us to expect even greater transparency from them — that they will be open and forthright about where they stand on issues, ranging from flood control to choosing the best location for the Fourth of July celebration. That they will lead by example.

Berea is no different. In this town of 13,500 residents, we expect our council members to summon the political courage to schedule a vote on a fairness ordinance.

It is time to act. For inaction is discrimination in and of itself.

Jason Howard, a member of Bereans for Fairness, is coauthor of Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal.

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