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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Rights that stop at the city limits

Every time I hear about another city enacting an LGBT-inclusive human rights ordinance I cheer a little bit. And then I sigh wondering how long it will take for some gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person to run smack into the reality that such ordinances are better at providing symbolism than any real protection.

Most recently I can across a reference to such a human rights ordinance in The Dallas Voice, an LGBT publication that heralded Dallas' anti-discrimination ordinance. "The city of Dallas wants to make sure you’re aware of the protections available to you under its anti-discrimination ordinance," the article began. That's a good start, but what the lead paragraph promised was being chipped away by the forth paragraph.

Moving further down the story - into what would be called "the fine print" if it were a contract - we find out there are certain restrictions to LGBT inclusiveness.

You've only got 180 days to file a complaint.

Some organizations and government entities are exempt from prosecution under the anti-discrimination ordinance.

You can't sue religious organizations.

The federal government and its departments and agencies are all exempt from following the law.

So is state government and its departments and agencies.

Oh ... and so are private membership clubs, landlords who own three or fewer single-family dwellings, and social, fraternal, educational, civic, or political organizations that exist solely for the benefit of members.

And finally, there's this kicker: If someone files a complaint against a business that's actually covered by the law and prevails, he or she is entitled to a grand sum of (drum roll please!) $200 to $500. That's a maximum. Not one cent more. The wronged party doesn't even have the right to file greivances with state or federal agencies where the fines and penalties are higher. All because LGBTs aren't covered by federal anti-discrimination laws or even state laws except in a scant few states.

Back in 1993 when I was just starting down the path of gay activism, Kansas City had just passed its human rights ordinance giving lesbians and gays (we still don't include transgender persons or mention gender identity in the ordinance) equal rights in employment, housing and public accommodations.

We saw it as a major victory. Perhaps it was. It was certainly a step forward. But then to go from having no recourse to discrimination to limited recourse is always an improvement.

During that same time I was volunteering with the local anti-violence hotline. The hotline grew out of complaints that police were failing to take gay-bashing incidents seriously as well as the need to educate the community about how to file a discrimination case under the new ordinance.

Some of our callers just wanted to share their stories. Others from surrounding communities were shocked to find out that because the incident occurred outside Kansas City, there was no recourse for them to file a complaint.

One caller in particular stands out in my mind. He was a young man in his 20s who worked in downtown Kansas City for a large corporation. Discretion prevents me from mentioning the company by name, but I can say its initials were AT&T.

The caller was a gay man who had the unfortunate luck of working for a piously religious supervisor who made it a point to mention that the Bible labeled men like him "abominations." She left religious tracts about the perils faced by those who lived the homosexual lifestyle on his desk. She also advised co-workers that they were working about a gay man and even made a point of taking the food he brought for an office potluck dinner off the table out of fear other less sinfull employees might catch some disease from it.

By the time the young man contacted the hotline, he was at his wit's end. Literally. He had just been released from a psychiatric facility where he had spent a couple of weeks after a job-related breakdown. He had also reached a point where he was ready to fight back and I walked him through the process of filing a complaint.

Over the next couple of mouths I spoke with him several times as his case wound its way through the system. The city's Human Rights Department assured him he had one of the most clear-cut cases of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation they had ever dealt with. For once he sounded hopeful instead of bouncing back and forth between depression and anger. Having sheparded him through the system, I felt I had done my part in getting him the help he needed.

Sometime later I ran into the young man's lover and inquired about his case.

"His case?" he asked.

"The case he filed for discrimination."

"Oh. Yeah. That one," his lover answered. "He won. They gave him the maximum. It was $500."

Shortly after he won, he resigned. The company put him back under the same supervisor who was now adept at less overt ways to make his life hell. So he quit. And the $500 he received came no where near paying his medical bills.

The LGBT community had won a victory when it won inclusion in the non-discrimination ordinance. But it was a tiny one, in retrospect. More like a symbolic victory than a meaningful one.

Had the young man be black and his supervisor referred to him as "boy" or taunted him about eating watermelon and fried chicken, he would have had recourse beyond a hollow victory and $500.

Had he been a young woman who was groped and propositioned by a supervisor, the fines would have been heavy.

Had he been a Jew working for a right-wing Christian who called him a "Christ killer" or tried to convert him, AT&T would have faced much more than a slap on the wrist.

But he was gay. And apparently being discriminated against for sexual orientation carries a bargain-basement price tag because our rights extend only to the city limits ... and in many locations those rights don't exist at all.

Municipal ordinances that cover LGBT folks are great. We need more of them. But we also need state and federal laws that back them up and provide additional legal recourse to those who have faced discrimination.

That's why we can't rest on our laurels and stop pushing - even in the face of the most homophobic administration this nation has produced.

As long as one LGBT person faces discrimination or is fired because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity our job isn't done.