Stalled in Congress, LGBT rights ad­vance at the lo­cal level

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - NEWS - By David Crary

At the U.S. Capi­tol and in most state­houses na­tion­wide, sup­port­ers of LGBT rights are un­able to make ma­jor gains these days. In­stead, they’re notch­ing vic­to­ries in seem­ingly un­likely venues, such as Mor­gan­town, West Vir­ginia, and Birm­ing­ham, Alabama.

They are among scores of ci­ties and towns in Repub­li­can-gov­erned states that have acted on their own, pass­ing res­o­lu­tions and or­di­nances pledg­ing nondis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions for gays, les­bians, bi­sex­u­als and trans­gen­der peo­ple in the ab­sence of com­pa­ra­ble statewide laws.

De Pere, Wis­con­sin — a Green Bay sub­urb not noted for LGBT ac­tivism — took a big step last week to­ward join­ing the move­ment. Af­ter an in­tense pub­lic meet­ing, its city coun­cil gave pre­lim­i­nary ap­proval on a 5-4 vote to a mea­sure that would broaden the lo­cal nondis­crim­i­na­tion or­di­nance to cover trans­gen­der peo­ple. The mea­sure would pro­hibit busi­nesses, em­ploy­ers and land­lords from dis­crim­i­nat­ing against peo­ple due to their gen­der iden­tify.

Al­der­man Casey Nel­son, who in­tro­duced the mea­sure, said he wasn’t sure if anti-trans­gen­der bias was a prob­lem in De Pere, but he wanted to send a mes­sage that the city of about 25,000 was wel­com­ing and tol­er­ant.

“Can you imag­ine liv­ing in a com­mu­nity that re­fuses to ac­cept you for who you are?” Nel­son asked.

Ad­vo­cacy groups say sev­eral hun­dred mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties across the coun­try have LGBT-in­clu­sive an­tib­ias mea­sures — many of them in the 31 states that lack fully in­clu­sive statewide laws.

Skep­tics say the lo­cal laws, in some cases, are mostly sym­bolic and not zeal­ously en­forced. Yet LGBT ac­tivists view them as a heart­en­ing barom­e­ter of na­tion­wide sup­port at a time when Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has taken mul­ti­ple steps that jeop­ar­dize LGBT rights — in­clud­ing weak­en­ing pro­tec­tions for trans­gen­der stu­dents and seek­ing to ban trans­gen­der peo­ple from mil­i­tary ser­vice.

Mor­gan­town, home to West Vir­ginia Univer­sity, was among the most re­cent ad­di­tions to the list of com­mu­ni­ties tak­ing LGBTfriendly ac­tion. Its sev­en­mem­ber city coun­cil voted unan­i­mously on Oct. 17 to ex­tend nondis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions to LGBT peo­ple.

Mayor Bill Kawecki says the ac­tion “sim­ply ver­bal­ized the kind of com­mu­nity I re­ally hope that we are.”

Ear­lier in the year, two big ci­ties in South, GOP-led states — Jack­sonville, Florida, and Birm­ing­ham — adopted sim­i­lar or­di­nances. Birm­ing­ham be­came the first Alabama city to take the step; Jack­sonville had been one of the most pop­u­lous U.S. ci­ties that lacked such a law.

In con­trast, ma­jor­ity Repub­li­cans in Congress have shown no in­ter­est in con­sid­er­ing a Demo­cratic-backed bill called the Equal­ity Act that would ex­tend nondis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions to LGBT peo­ple na­tion­wide. Com­pan­ion bills in the House and Se­nate have a to­tal of two GOP co-spon­sors.

The con­gres­sional im­passe leaves it up to in­di­vid­ual states to set their own poli­cies, but there has been lit­tle ac­tion re­cently. Since 2009, Utah is the only state where law­mak­ers have voted to join the mi­nor­ity of other states which ex­tend nondis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions to LGBT peo­ple. And Utah went only part way — ap­ply­ing the pro­tec­tions to em­ploy­ment and hous­ing but not pub­lic ac­com­mo­da­tions.

In states such as Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan and Florida, where the elec­torate is closely di­vided be­tween Democrats and Repub­li­cans, ef­forts to en­act in­clu­sive anti-bias laws have been re­buffed by the GOP­dom­i­nated leg­is­la­tures.

The GOP-led leg­is­la­tures in Arkansas and Ten­nessee have gone a step fur­ther — en­act­ing laws bar­ring mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties from pass­ing their own LGBT-in­clu­sive or­di­nances. In Arkansas, the at­tor­ney gen­eral is ask­ing the state Supreme Court to pre­vent the city of Fayet­teville from en­forc­ing an or­di­nance of that na­ture that it passed in 2015.

At­tor­ney Matt Sharp, se­nior coun­sel with the con­ser­va­tive Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom, said laws like those in Arkansas and Ten­nessee are de­signed to spare busi­nesses from hav­ing to com­ply with a patch­work of dif­fer­ent anti-bias laws from one city to an­other.

Allen Whitt, pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive Fam­ily Pol­icy Coun­cil of West Vir­ginia, pre­dicted that leg­is­la­tors in his state would pro­pose laws next year that would em­u­late Arkansas and Ten­nessee and strike down the lo­cal LGBT-friendly or­di­nances.

Whitt was on hand when Mor­gan­town passed its anti-bias or­di­nance, and spoke against it.

These or­di­nances “should be re­jected by ev­ery city and state be­cause they dis­crim­i­nate against di­ver­sity of thought,” White said later in an email. “They are ex­am­ples of po­lit­i­cal bul­ly­ing and lib­eral city coun­cil thug­gery at its worst.”

LGBT ad­vo­cacy groups point out what they see as hypocrisy by con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans on the is­sue.

“It’s ironic that the party of small gov­ern­ment wants to in­ter­fere with ci­ties which want to pro­vide com­mon sense pro­tec­tions for all their cit­i­zens,” said Sarah War­be­low, le­gal di­rec­tor for the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, a na­tional LGBTrights group.

In When De Pere’s health board dis­cussed the or­di­nance in Oc­to­ber, sup­port­ers in the au­di­ence in­cluded An­nette and John Grun­seth from the neigh­bor­ing town of Al­louez, whose adult daugh­ter is trans­gen­der.

“Are you con­cerned about some­body at­tack­ing you be­cause of your gen­der iden­tity?” John Grun­seth asked the board. “I bet most of us don’t even think about that, but this is con­stantly on our daugh­ter’s mind.”


In this Tues­day photo, Du­val Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Niko­lai Vitti, cen­ter, is hugged af­ter the Jack­sonville City Coun­cil voted 12-6 to sup­port the Hu­man Rights Or­di­nance (HRO) in Jack­sonville, Fla.

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