Legislators, Gov. Disapprove of Gay and Transgender-Friendly Ordinance

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Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s proposed ordinance to address housing and workplace discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is drawing criticism from state legislators, and even the new governor.

“Depending on how they carve out a protected class it creates a concern that is something we would want to look at,” House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, told the Salt Lake Tribune on Aug. 26.

Likewise, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, hinted that he might write a bill to outlaw the ordinance in the 2010 legislative session, which will begin in January. A long-time foe of gay rights who made headlines in this year’s session after telling a documentary filmmaker that gays had “no morals” and were “the biggest threat to America going down,” Buttars sponsored legislation in 2008 to strike down Salt Lake City’s domestic partner registry. Legislators eventually compromised, allowing the registry to stand with its name changed to “mutual commitments registry,” so as not to conflict with Utah’s constitutional gay marriage ban.

Buttars told radio station KCPW on Aug. 24 that he didn’t believe gay and transgender people faced discrimination in Utah.

“I don’t think the discrimination they scream about is really real,” he said.  “Now, I’m watching that to see what they try to do, and if they keep pushing it, then I will bring a bill about it.”

However, Buttars later told the Tribune that he had “no intentions” of running such a bill.
A report issued by Salt Lake City’s Human Rights Commission, however, has proven otherwise. The report, released in July, documented several cases of discrimination throughout the city, and noted that discrimination most frequently occurred in the areas of race and sexual orientation. In the past two years, QSaltLake and several other media outlets have reported on several cases of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who say they were fired because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. One of these people, Candace Metzler, is a transgender woman who said she was fired after transitioning at work, and who lived on the streets for a year before finding another job. On Aug. 20, Metzler organized a community forum on workplace discrimination at the Salt Lake City Main Library.

Likewise, the Utah Labor Commission revealed in this year’s legislative session that it receives an average of three inquiries each month about job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Statewide gay and transgender rights group Equality Utah had asked the commission previously to keep track of these inquiries.

The Labor Commission has to answer that Utah law currently offers no job protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers.

Will Carlson, Public Policy Manager for statewide gay and transgender rights group Equality Utah, encouraged gay and transgender Utahns who have experienced housing or employment discrimination to speak out to counteract this misconception.

“Sen. Buttars expressed doubts that LGBT people experience discrimination. The best thing we can do to counteract that is to share our stories,” he said, asking the community to contact Clark, Buttars and Senate president Michael Waddoups.

He also disagreed with Buttars’ assertion that the law would grant gay and transgender people special rights.

“Just about everyone I know has a sexual orientation or gender identity,” he said. “It’s important that everyone realize that these protections are for everyone.”

Supporters of Becker’s proposed ordinance have said that it is well within the bounds of state and federal laws, particularly as the state will not act to add sexual orientation and gender identity to statewide antidiscrimination laws.

The state has had opportunities to address such discrimination before. In 2008 and 2009, the legislative committees killed two such bills before they could reach the House floor for debate. Openly lesbian Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored both bills. In 2009, her bill was one of four in statewide gay and transgender rights group Equality Utah’s Common Ground Initiative, all of which were defeated in committee or withdrawn by their sponsors. Since then, Equality Utah has taken the bills — which addressed such other things as probate and domestic partner rights — to municipal governments like Salt Lake City’s.

A day after Buttars’ KCPW interview, Becker himself went on the public radio station to answer the senator’s criticisms.

“Unfortunately, discrimination is alive and well in Salt Lake City, as it is, I imagine, in other communities,” he said. “It would be, I think, irresponsible of me to not take that issue on, to address it, to do everything we can to eradicate discrimination in our community.” Becker added that he had “initiated contact” with Buttars and hoped to discuss the ordinance and the issue of discrimination within the city with him.

“It appeared from the [KCPW] interview that Sen. Buttars wasn’t aware of our report on discrimination that we issued a few months ago,” said Becker. “I want to make sure we get that in his hands.”
Carlson agreed that the city was well within the law to offer such protections, and said that legislators who opposed it were actually supporting the type of “nanny state” they usually decry.

“It’s one thing for the legislature not to pass a bill, but to come down and force the city to discriminate is much more harsh and much more irresponsible,” he said. “Any government that addresses [the issue of discrimination] should be praised, not punished.”

Initially, new Utah Gov. Gary Herbert initially responded cautiously to the ordinance. But in an Aug. 27 press conference, he told reporters that while he supported local government and the building of “ordinances and policies from the ground up,” he did not think such a law was necessary.

“Well, I don’t think we should discriminate against gay people. I think people ought to be treated with respect,” he told Lisa Riley Roche of the Deseret Morning News. However, Herbert then said that he was reluctant to pass a law forbidding people to do just that.

“We don’t have a rule for everybody to do the right thing,” he said. “We ought to just do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do and we don’t have to have a law that punishes us if we don’t.”
When Jeff Robinson of KCPW asked why Utah law shouldn’t be expanded when it already prohibited discrimination based on religion and race, Herbert asked: “Well then, where do you stop? That’s the problem going down that slippery road. Pretty soon we’re going to have a special law for blue-eyed blonds.”

Herbert’s comments made headlines across the country, and touched off a storm of protest on several gay news sites and blogs.

Despite the controversy surrounding it, Becker’s ordinance has actually not been written yet. The mayor is still considering public comments (made before the cut off date of Aug. 21) on the matter. He has said that he hopes to have the ordinance before the city council in September.

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