Cities, Small Towns Across America Attempt To Fill Gaps In LGBT Rights

Battles over local nondiscrimination ordinances, from small towns in Kentucky to big cities like Houston, often get personal when neighbors come face-to-face with disparities in the law for LGBT people.

AP Photo/J Pat Carter, File

As marriage equality victories rapidly march the LGBT rights movement forward in many states, some local governments in cities and small towns across America are looking to fill in gaps where state and federal laws fall short of protecting LGBT people from discrimination.

For many LGBT Americans, the threat of being fired, denied service at a business, or turned away for a new place to live because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is still very real as most states lack such protections in their nondiscrimination laws. But officials, sometimes pressed by local advocates and allies, in dozens of cities and towns — from Tempe, Ariz., to Billings, Mont. — have sought to change this by creating municipal nondiscrimination ordinances.

In Kentucky, LGBT advocates and community allies have passed a string of nondiscrimination ordinances across the state over the last two years — most recently in June when Danville, Ky., became the seventh city in the state to approve LGBT protections. Chris Hartman, director of the Louisville, Ky.-based Fairness Campaign, told BuzzFeed he expects an additional two towns to pass similar ordinances in the coming months — Berea and Owensboro.

“The victories are not slowing,” Hartman said, noting wins for LGBT rights in Kentucky and at the national level. “It’s been a struggle, but the tenor has definitely changed. Everywhere we organize, what we find is the support is there and the only snag is convincing the elected officials that the support is there and to pass the ordinance. In the cities where it’s caught on, it’s caught on like wildfire.”

Vicco, Ky., a small Appalachian town with just over 330 residents, became what advocates believe is the smallest town in the United States to approve an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance when it did so in January 2013. It was a move that attracted the attention of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, which featured the town and its mayor in a segment. Hartman believes that pushing for — and passing — these measures throughout Kentucky will ultimately pressure state lawmakers to pass a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill statewide, saying, “Support behind local movements across the state is evidence that our General Assembly might soon catch on and may very well be a pioneering leader.”

“Broadly speaking, there are lots of cities that are realizing two things: First of all, while there are really great things happening at the national level, there are places without basic protections for LGBT people,” said Cathryn Oakley, legislative counsel of state and municipal advocacy at the Human Rights Campaign. “And second, they can do something about it. As cities are realizing how much power they have, they’re taking action because state and federal governments haven’t.” In all, about 31 million people get their only protections from gender identity discrimination from municipal and local laws, she said.

Most recently, the Orlando City Council unanimously approved a measure on Aug. 11 that finally added gender identity to protected classes in its nondiscrimination law — years after it included sexual orientation. After the vote, the city’s mayor Buddy Dyer, told the Orlando Sentinel, “We’ve gotten to the point where we can do — with very little controversy — things we ought to be doing, so I’m very proud of that.”

But fights for basic LGBT protections isn’t just limited to small towns, as evidenced by the high-profile example of Houston, which under the leadership of out lesbian Mayor Annise Parker passed an equal rights ordinance that includes nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in May. Other major cities in Texas such as Dallas, Austin, and Forth Worth have previously established such policies as they do not exist at the state level. Several other places have seen these ordinances approved just this year — Victor, Idaho, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Danville, Ky., to name a few.

But not all of these pushes have been successful, like in Baton Rouge, La., where city leaders voted down an LGBT nondiscrimination measure Aug. 13. A day earlier, the mayor of Billings, Mont., the state’s largest city, cast the deciding vote against a similar proposal, saying at the time that he didn’t think the city was ready for the ordinance. And in Saginaw, Mich., city leaders rejected such a proposal in the early hours of May 20. Additionally, Houston Mayor Parker has suspended implementation of the city’s new ordinance following a legal challenge to the officials’ determination that their push for a voter referendum to repeal it did not qualify for the November ballot. A Texas judge set a hearing in the case for next January.

Advocates acknowledge that local LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination measures will sometimes fail, as they have on many occasions since they were first proposed in places during the 1970s, Oakley said, noting, “Even in 2014, we’re still going to have heartbreaking things that happen on the path forward.”

A major part of the opposition in Houston came from critics who alleged public accommodations protections for transgender people would lead to unsafe public restrooms and that men would be allowed to use female designated facilities — a claim made by opponents in many cities that supporters of these measures flatly reject as unfounded and offensive.

“It’s one of the talking points for the opposition and it can be incredibly vulgar, transphobic, and hurtful,” Oakley said, and noted that, while she’s not aware of a concerted national effort against nondiscrimination laws, “Fearmongering looks the same in a lot of different places.”

At the state level, advocates saw a major victory in March when the Maryland House of Delegates passed the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, which will establish LGBT protections in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodations, but in New York State, an ongoing effort to add gender identity and expression to the state’s nondiscrimination laws, GENDA, fell short when GOP Senate leadership adjourned the session without taking a vote on the measure in June — even though it had just been passed in the assembly for the seventh time. In Maryland, the new law will take effect Oct. 1, and advocates in New York are aiming to pass GENDA next year.

There have also been developments at the federal level. On July 21, President Obama signed an executive order barring discrimination against LGBT employees of federal contractors and protecting transgender federal employees from discrimination.

Including Maryland, 18 states plus Washington, D.C., ban discrimination in employment and housing on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity and 17 of those states also prohibit discrimination in in public accommodations on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity, according to HRC.

And with a patchwork of states with such laws, a discrepancy has emerged as marriage equality for same-sex couples have come to more and more states. Pennsylvania, in particular, is the only state where same-sex couples currently can legally marry, but where LGBT people aren’t protected by a statewide nondiscrimination law. Oakley described the situation as “sort of a nightmare” as a person could be terminated by their employer, for example, for marrying their same-sex spouse and displaying a picture with their spouse at their desk. However, it’s important to note that there are close to 30 municipalities in the state with local-level nondiscrimination ordinances, she said.

Similar situations have already played out in the state since same-sex couples began marrying there in late May. Recently, a bakery in Schuylkill County, Pa., refused to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple and a bridal shop in Bloomsburg, Pa., wouldn’t serve a lesbian couple interested in wedding gowns.

LGBT advocates anticipate an interesting road forward in other states as judges continue to strike down bans on marriage for same-sex couples and potential nationwide marriage equality rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming years — what Hartman describes as the potential “disparity in rights that you can be married but be fired from your job for being married.”

Earlier this year, what seemed to be the opposite of passing LGBT protections appeared to be occurring in statehouses across the country, with proposed legislation to protect religious liberty that in many cases were decried as attempts to create a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people. Some proponents behind these bills argued that businesses should be allowed to deny service to people, including LGBT people, if serving them would go against their deeply held religious beliefs. The Arizona General Assembly made national headlines when it passed such a bill in February, lighting off a firestorm of criticism that ultimately led Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the measure on Feb. 26. However, a bill opposed by many LGBT advocates was approved in Mississippi.

Religious freedom is always part of the conversation when pushing for nondiscrimination protections, according to Oakley, who acknowledged that arguments over religious liberty are far from over, especially when state lawmakers return for new legislative sessions.

But what makes the conversation about over these measures for equal rights and protections in individual communities so unique and powerful, is that it their residents — especially in small towns — have to confront the reality that laws don’t protect everyone the same. “It gets personal very quickly,” Hartman said.

“There was over six months of debate in our state’s capitol of Frankfort last year with people on both sides standing up and speaking for hours,” he said. “Every meeting was an emotional journey — with the opposition saying what the opposition says, which can be emotionally trying. Victories, at the end, are somewhat bittersweet because of the pain that some had to endure. People can say some hateful things when they’re given the opportunity.”

However, because of what Hartman said was the “struggle” or “long slog” to pass these ordinances city by city, he believes that Kentucky is one of many states that will soon take up and resolve the issue. “The momentum is there and I think the tipping point has been breached.”

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