Equality Now: How Idaho Can Move Forward on LGBT Rights 

Changing the conversation from a social issue, to a rights issue

When Bill Kale was on Oprah Winfrey's show in early May, she had to stop taping because of the tears.

Kale, now 74, had been one of the courageous young people to board buses in the 1960s and travel from comfortable Northern affluence to the stifling heat of the Jim Crow South. Oprah honored their achievement on the 50th anniversary of their journey, which came to be known as the Freedom Rides, by telling them that she wouldn't be where she is today without them.

A native of Grangeville, Kale was a 24-year-old Yale Divinity School student when he joined the Freedom Riders, groups of blacks and whites who traveled through the South via bus to fight segregation.

His decision--as a young, white Ivy Leaguer--to risk life and limb on behalf of people he'd never met came easily.

"When we went down to the Freedom Rides, it was an automatic thing to do: 'I'm not going to put up with that,'" said Kale, who now lives in Wisconsin. "You have to stand up for what is right."

Now 50 years--almost to the day--after his June 7 arrest and incarceration in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Kale can look back on the Freedom Rides and Civil Rights Movement of the '60s and see correlations between his generation's great struggle for social justice and what will in all likelihood be the great struggle of the current generation: equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

"At church camp, I encountered my first black, and I think there's a parallel directly here," he said. "I thought he was a really nice kid and got to know him like any other person. Then, of course, as I went off to college and began to meet with and be engaged in diversity--which is key--I basically concluded that people are people."

As American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho Executive Director Monica Hopkins put it: "Like Martin Luther King said: 'The rising tide raises all boats.' This is not an issue that only people who are LGBT should care about."

You'll hear that sentiment echoed by many Idahoans, but the fight for LGBT equality in the state has a dismal history.

Despite brave opposition--often from Republicans bucking leadership--the anti-gay marriage amendment was passed in 2006. Inclusion of LGBT as a protected group in the Idaho Human Rights Act has been stymied five years in a row now, and lawmakers let two bills die this past session that would have provided key support and protections for both youths and adults in the LGBT community: the anti-bullying bill and legislation that would have afforded fair access to employment, housing and education.

At the same time, a Boise State public policy survey concluded that upward of 63 percent of Idahoans think it should be wrong--contrary to the current statutes--that someone can be denied employment, fired, barred from education or refused housing based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Testimony on the anti-bullying bill drew powerful and widespread support from groups and individuals across the spectrum, but it was strangled in committee nonetheless. The bill didn't even specifically mention LGBT students; it would have simply required counter-bully training for teachers, counselors and administrators.

"I think those are the things that the public supports and feels are necessary and which lawmakers really shouldn't have a problem with, you would think," said Boise Democrat Sen. Nicole LeFavour, Idaho's only openly gay legislator.

For LeFavour, the problem is painfully simple.

"I think the biggest obstacle is that this is legislation we're trying to pass through what is ostensibly a legislature that isn't made up of gay people. That understanding and that need for understanding is monumental," she said.

"The public has moved miles on this issue and the legislature is so far behind," she added. "It's down to the regular folks in the state to really speak out and say, 'You know, this is enough waiting. This is a basic fundamental issue of humanity and it's time to address it.'"

Another stumbling block, according to Amy Herzfeld, who helms the Idaho Human Rights Education Center and is also a member of the LGBT community, is plain old fear.

"It is always, always important for lawmakers who are undecided on this issue to hear from allies, to hear from straight family members, to hear from business members, people who are in more rural or isolated communities," she said. "As we're talking about pride and the importance, politically, of people coming out and telling their stories and having the courage to talk about their lives and their families, that personalizes the stories and makes it visible. That's incredibly important, but there are also tremendous risks."

Ask LGBT leaders and those heading allied organizations whence the fear of speaking out comes and you'll run up against a consistent culprit: religion.

"Religion is always a difficult obstacle to deal with. Some religions have come to be comfortable with gay people sooner than others, and some churches have come to understand that they have gay people in their congregations," said LeFavour. "I'm really saddened sometimes that the LDS church has been really reticent to make that progress more clear, because there have been statements that were very clear that they don't oppose employment protections and yet very, very strong statements against marriage. I think many people blur the issues."

Pam Baldwin, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Idaho, has lobbied on behalf of myriad human-rights and social-justice issues, including LGBT equality.

"Folks that join the Interfaith Alliance are of a progressive worldview in that we believe first and foremost that religion, spirituality, faith should be used as a way to bring people together--not a way to divide people," Baldwin said. "We also feel strongly about undoing oppression and working to have social, economic and environmental justice in the state of Idaho."

Baldwin said the fear that surrounds public advocacy on behalf of LGBT equality runs deep. All the way to the pulpit.

"I think it's religio-political," she said. "It is religious leaders organizing out of fear of others that are making this so prevalent. ... There are members of the clergy who are afraid to talk about these issues because their congregations listen to Glenn Beck, and they say, 'They'll kick me out.' What? Glenn Beck's more important than Jesus Christ?"

Rather than look at religion as an obstacle, Baldwin said her organization strives to inspire churches of all faiths and denominations to use sacred spaces for their deeper purpose: as places where people contemplate and discuss what is not only most important in their own lives but in the lives of others.

Discussion is the most important, she said.

"They don't understand that houses of worship have a responsibility to have these conversations and forge public policy. They can't be political insofar as they endorse candidates, but they can talk about immigration, racism, classism, heterosexism," she said. "Most world religions are based on love, caring for each other, the common good. They're not based on greed or 'me first.' People have to get back to their basic values and figure out what they want for their community, for their children."

Kale, a former pastor and campus minister for the University of Minnesota, echoes much of Baldwin's sentiments.

"We're really talking about life, here, and our desire that everyone has life and everyone has the ability to develop their spirit, you can say, or their self or their mind to the total extent possible," he said. "But you get so much crap from churches and others who are bigoted. My thesis work was on Paul, and Romans in particular, and there's this one phrase that I've always contemplated: 'There is neither male nor female. All are one.'"

Indeed the feeling of being part of the whole is central in the LGBT rights movement and lends a level of nuance that differentiates it from other social-justice struggles.

"I think there's a complexity to being gay that you can pass people in the street and they won't necessarily know that you're gay in the same way that they would know you're not Caucasian or a woman," LeFavour said. "That ability to blend in does make the movement different, but when you come to gender identity, you do find very real similarities."

Herzfeld agrees that there are very real dissimilarities between the fight for LGBT equality and past equality movements, not least of which are the ways in which the discrimination manifests itself.

"I don't think it's appropriate to make a wholesale comparison between the LGBT movement and the Civil Rights Movement because it's impolite to co-opt the hard fought battles of a unique struggle, and I also think homophobia and racism are systems of oppression that operate in different ways," she said.

"Racism is a system of oppression that can be experienced in a generational way. Generational discrimination isn't as common in the LGBT community because families can have straight or LGBT members," she added. "I think it takes social-justice organizations to reach out across issue and constituencies to recognize that the work needs to come from a rights-based place and not an identity-based place."

In other words, the struggle for LGBT rights involves a commitment on the part of groups and individuals--often in their own homes--to combat discrimination. As Kale agreed, this social-justice movement will be won with personal "Freedom Rides," not a bus trip en masse to a specific location.

"In the end, what changes minds is people knowing a gay person or transgender person and realizing that these issues affect people that they care about," LeFavour said. "I wouldn't say you have to drop the label thing; you have to know you know a gay person and know that they're a person and that they matter and they have dignity."

Elizabeth Morgan works with a population that feels the slings and arrows of LGBT inequality as much--if not more--than any other: students.

As co-chair of the Idaho Safe Schools Coalition, Morgan helps provide support for diversity clubs and gay-straight alliances comprised of youths, both LGBT and straight, who all struggle with issues of identity and social acceptance.

"That's probably one of the bigger challenges, and I think that's true particularly because students may face negative social responses to them being involved in these organizations. It's hard for students who are not going through these issues themselves to willingly submit themselves to that social scrutiny," she said. "Usually, if we do have heterosexually identified students participating, it's because they have a good friend who's gay or a parent who's gay or some connection to the community."

Morgan, a developmental psychologist who also directs the Family Studies program in Boise State's Department of Psychology, said the central goal of the coalition is to provide a voice for youth in both secondary and post-secondary school, as well as advocate on their behalf.

"Often schools and school boards are not particularly friendly toward these groups," she said. "I think that that's really our main goal: to empower the youth. But at the same time, we do that by taking kind of a top-down approach with teachers and administrators at school and speaking for them or speaking up for them."

The Idaho Safe Schools Coalition has been helping bring LGBT and heterosexual students together since its foundation in 2005 by members of the Idaho Education Association and Civil and Human Rights Committee. The effort is creating results.

According to Morgan, the younger generation is markedly more accepting of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

"Having kids who are out in high school, and we know that happens a lot more than it did 10 years or 20 years ago, makes a big difference," she said. "Then there's just the ability to have these clubs in schools to support them."

Leaders like LeFavour and Herzfeld laud the efforts of groups like the Idaho Safe Schools Coalition and Interfaith Alliance, crediting them and many others with some of the most important work yet done for the cause of LGBT equality in Idaho. They, like allied groups, underscore that the real fight remains in the statehouse.

"For five consecutive years, we haven't been given a public hearing at the state legislature [on LGBT inclusion in the Idaho Human Rights Act]," Herzfeld said. "It's a longer-term battle and it's one that requires a lot of education, a lot of grass-roots movement work.

"The public support is there," she added, but lawmakers--in particular Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Curt McKenzie, from Boise--refuse to move on it.

"He doesn't see that there are votes on the committee to get it out. I have a hard time accepting that," Herzfeld said. "The difficulty of a task does not relieve us of the obligation to try."

Hopkins chalks up the Legislature's abysmal and repeated failure on LGBT rights to simple political cowardice.

"I think what it will take to pass something like [fair employment legislation] and to pass the Idaho Human Rights Act amendment is first and foremost some political will and some backbone on the issue, and second to realize that it's an equality issue. It is about fundamental liberty," she said. "If we're going to say, as former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne did, that 'Idaho is a human rights state,' then we should be demanding these things."

Hopkins, like Herzfeld, can't understand why something like the Human Rights Act amendment won't even receive a hearing.

"There's no democratic kind of process that this is going through right now. One of the reasons being, at least that we're told, is that there isn't enough support on the committee. One of the ways that changes, and has changed, is through public testimony," she said.

"It's going to take not only political will, but it will take politicians getting out of the way and allowing the people to speak," she continued. "We're in a different world and I think it's going to take legislators trying to understand that and move out of their old models. We're in this for the long haul. We will keep coming back year, after year, after year. And we give kudos to the ways that community organizations and community members are banding together on this."

One of the bright spots pointed to by LGBT and allied groups alike is that even if the state won't codify employment protections for LGBT workers, many private businesses and local governments have.

The City of Boise approved an all-inclusive policy that protects employees regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Pocatello has done the same and Caldwell in 2010 put in place a guarantee that protects workers against discrimination based on sexual orientation but not gender identity.

"This isn't just a social issue. This is an economic issue," Hopkins said. "This is an issue related to the education of our population. In a time when we're talking about an economic downturn and how do we get out of that, why are we not concerned about making Idaho a place where companies would want to come and build a diverse workforce?"

When talking about the importance of getting involved with the Freedom Riders, Kale returns to the feeling of frustration he felt at the lack of action on the part of his peers.

"I was really pretty annoyed with all of my friends who were talking, talking, talking, talking and not doing anything. I said to myself: 'All right, you just talk. I'm going to do it,'" he said. "It's all part and parcel of the same thing: People want their freedom. They don't want the man--any man--telling them what to do."

Getting to that perspective, however, requires the community to think of itself as a whole.

Steve Martin, Idaho community development organizer for the Pride Foundation, said much the same thing, putting a finer point on the issue.

"I think it goes back to that 'us-and-them' mentality. Some people just have a difficult time accepting people who are different than they are, and are also scared about change and how that might impact them personally. Overcoming that as a society will happen over time but starts with all of us embracing the strength in diversity," he said.

"Someday, when the conversation in this context becomes, for example, a discussion about issues related to the community as a whole and not just the LGBTQ community or the straight community, then we'll really know we've made some progressive strides."

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