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Equality Now: How Idaho Can Move Forward on LGBT Rights

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

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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.

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