Kansas has become the new battleground in the fight to expand the rights of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community as city councils in Lawrence, Hutchinson, Salina, Wichita, and Pittsburg are weighing whether to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to protected classes under the jurisdiction’s civil rights laws.

Lawrence passed the ordinance late last year, and the Hutchinson City Council will vote on a similar proposal May 1.

Proponents of the measure said it gives all citizens the rights and protections they deserve.

“ will provide equality to all GLBT persons within Hutchinson,” said Jon Powell, board member of the Hutchinson chapter of the Kansas Equality Coalition, which is advocating for the policy change. “Contrary to our opponents’ beliefs, there is discrimination that exists in our community. Wherever there is air there’s discrimination, so why should our little community be different?”

Powell said many in Hutchinson’s considerable GLBT community live in fear.

“They are in fear daily of losing their job or being evicted,” he said. “People are afraid to come forward and tell their story because of fear of reprisal…I personally know of 20 business owners that are not part of our group because they are afraid to come out, and hopefully these laws will make it easier for them to be who they are.”

According to a Hutchinson Human Relation Commission fact sheet, the policy change would make it illegal for employers to consider someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation in hiring. And, workplace dress codes would allow for someone to dress based on gender expression.

The change would allow public places such as theaters, restaurants and stores to maintain gender-segregated restrooms, locker and shower rooms. However, transgender individuals would be allowed to use the facility that corresponds with their gender identity and not their gender at birth. If another patron objects due to safety or moral concerns, the fact sheet continued, the proprietor should offer the use of a private bathroom or “ that individual to wait until the other person has left the restroom.”

Opponents of the measure said they are concerned about predators using the law for illicit purposes.
“If this passes, any one of you can go to the natatorium and change in the women’s locker room in front of my wife and daughter, and there is nothing I can do about it,” Lawrence resident Greg Cromer told the five male city commissioners during that city’s hearing of a similar law, according to The Lawrence Journal-World. “In fact, if I try to do something about it, I’d be guilty of discrimination.”

But Powell said the argument has “gotten way, way blown out of proportion.”

“It’s a moot point in my mind. People go into restrooms to do one thing—they’re using the bathroom or fixing their hair. They’re not waiting to hurt people,” he said. “This law would not give you the right to dress as a man or woman and enter the restroom or locker room of another sex. And if you did there would be a criminal penalty.”

A more controversial aspect of the proposed law, however, would prevent places of worship that rent space to the general public from discriminating against customers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. So, if a gay couple wanted to rent a church hall for a party—and the church routinely rents out the space to the general public—it would have to make the transaction.

Opponents say that mandate would tread on dissenters’ rights.

“Homosexual activists are attempting to hijack the civil rights train by claiming that homosexual behavior deserves the same special protection granted to racial and gender minorities,” said Mathew Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel Action, which is against the measure. “If ‘gender identity’ laws become commonplace, then any person who speaks against deviant sexual practices will be vilified, their rights will be thwarted, and their freedom of religion and of conscience will be crushed.”

 

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO