Archive for Saturday, November 20, 2004

Topekans debate meaning, effect of city’s new gay rights ordinance

November 20, 2004


— Kansas is as reliably Republican as any state, but its capital city has taken a small step toward protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.

The Topeka City Council has approved an ordinance prohibiting bias based on sexual orientation in city hiring or employment.

Many advocates had hoped the council would enact a broader ordinance against discrimination in housing, lending and private employment and were disappointed. Yet a few took a bit of comfort in the small progress they did perceive.

Good timing

Part of it was timing. Council action Tuesday came two weeks after President Bush carried Kansas with 62 percent of the vote, his re-election and GOP fortunes bolstered by support from conservative Christians. In Shawnee County, which is home to Topeka, Bush carried 54 percent of the vote. Also, voters in 11 states approved constitutional bans on gay marriage.

"We've just come out of an election that was very bruising to the gay community," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "This small step by the Topeka City Council just shows that we are going to keep making progress."

But opponents of any gay rights ordinance saw approval of only a narrow change -- on a 5-4 council vote -- as a significant victory. Still, some worry the new ordinance is a step toward governmental acceptance of homosexuality.

"I wonder if it's just not the camel's nose under the tent," said Francis Slobodnik, manager of the Topeka-area office of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, an organization for Catholics.

One of three

¢ In April 1995, supporters of a decadelong effort in Lawrence to protect homosexuals from being fired, denied housing or refused service in public places because of their sexual orientation declared victory as Lawrence city commissioners approved amending the city's human relations ordinance to include the words "sexual orientation," thus giving homosexuals the ability to file complaints with the city over allegation of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Lawrence was the first city in Kansas to specifically extend anti-discrimination protections to gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Topeka became only the third local Kansas government with a policy against discrimination over sexual orientation, according to Foreman's New York-based task force. Lawrence, home to Kansas University, prohibits bias in housing and private employment. Shawnee County, where Topeka is located, bans discrimination in county employment.

Two years ago, the Topeka City Council voted 5-4 against a proposed ordinance prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment and lending. Supporters promised to try again, and last year, the Shawnee County Commission quietly adopted its policy.

City Council member Tiffany Muller said she and other backers put the issue back on the council's agenda this month thinking they could pass a broad gay rights ordinance. Muller, a lesbian, was active in the 2002 effort, and the council appointed her to fill a vacant seat in September.

National setting

Topeka advocates worked on an ordinance this year amid the national debate about gay marriage. The Kansas Legislature's rejection of a proposed amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage caused some clergy to mobilize voter registration and education drives.

And some gay marriage opponents see gay rights ordinances or laws as one step toward accepting same-sex unions.

"They are part of achieving a broader agenda," said Mathew Staver, president and general counsel for the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla., group that opposes gay marriage or civil unions.

But Evan Gerstmann, an associate political science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said attacking discrimination against gays and lesbians was a mainstream political goal, even if many Americans don't endorse gay relationships.

Phelps factor

In the Kansas capital, backers of a gay rights ordinance found a potent symbol of discrimination in the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. His Westboro Baptist Church, from central Topeka, pickets across the nation, carrying signs with slogans such as, "God hates fags."

Phelps derided the new Topeka ordinance as "peanuts" and said he was confident he could force its repeal though a voter petition drive. As for backers of an ordinance citing his church's activities, Phelps said, "It's not a bad PR move."

"They play on the actual or perceived community hatred I inspire," Phelps said.

Many opponents of a gay rights ordinance also consider Phelps an extremist. Slobodnik said he found the picketing offensive.

Meanwhile, many Topeka residents still want no change in existing policies banning discrimination based on race, religion, gender or disability, said council member Bill Haynes.

"The people who are opposed to it are very opposed and are in the decided majority," said Haynes, who voted against the narrow change approved by the council.

Muller argued that most city residents supported anti-discrimination efforts and the council lagged behind.

"Obviously, social change does come in baby steps," she said.

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