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More Than Words

Idahoans urge lawmakers to amend the state's human rights act to include LGBT protections.

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Words matter to Marilyn Shuler, former director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission. So do actions. Body language, too.

On Jan. 16, as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Idaho Human Rights Day celebration inside the Idaho Statehouse, the usually soft-spoken Shuler implored lawmakers and citizens to add the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the Idaho Human Rights Act. As her words echoed through the atrium of the rotunda, an appreciative audience erupted into generous applause--that is, most of the audience.

Gov. C.L "Butch" Otter stood awkwardly emotionless nearby, offering no applause--not even a nod. When it comes to LGBT issues, the stark contrast may be representative of the disconnect between Idaho policy makers--overwhelmingly comprised of older, white male Republicans--and a growing number of Idahoans looking for greater, if not broader, civil rights.

"Most Idahoans don't think that it should be legal to fire someone for being gay," said Mistie Tolman, spokeswoman for Add the Words, a local grassroots initiative that aims to amend Idaho law. "I think that most Idahoans today are shocked when they find out that in 2012, it's still legal to fire someone for being gay."

Tolman's assertions are fortified by a 2007 statewide poll, conducted by Boise State that showed 63 percent of Idahoans didn't believe someone should be fired because they are gay or perceived to be gay.

ACLU Idaho followed up with its own 2011 poll showing that 87 percent of Idahoans believed that people should not have to worry about losing their job because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Yet another 2011 poll, a nationwide survey conducted by the Center for American Progress, indicated that nine out of 10 Americans were under the false assumption that there was already a federal law in place that protects gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination.

In fact, an Idahoan can be fired from his/her job or kicked out of his/her housing for being gay or transgender.

To date, the Idaho Legislature has refused to even consider a bill. For five years running, measures that would see gay and/or transgender protections have come and gone. Last year the bill did not even make it out of committee.

"They have completely ignored us," said Tolman. "I don't understand why they won't give us a hearing and let us convince them."

Tolman and her colleagues' frustration spawned the Add the Words campaign--an idea to write simple messages on sticky notes and attach them to doors throughout the Idaho Capitol with the goal that legislators would see the notes, sparking conversation and eventual legislation. Since the start of the campaign, sticky notes have flooded in from more than 200 municipalities, representing each of Idaho's 35 legislative districts. Add the Words advocates make a daily trek to the Capitol, sticking more notes on the Statehouse's House and Senate chambers, as well as committee room doors.

"The majority of Idahoans do not think that folks should be fired from their jobs because they're gay or transgender," said Cody Hafer, an organizer with Add the Words. "And we hear legislators saying that they would support this if their constituents wanted it. So really, what we're trying to do is just be that link and facilitate that communication, because the support and the desire is already there."

Organizers are convinced if lawmakers are willing to have robust conversations regarding the issue, legislation will follow.

"I think Idahoans are far more ready than lawmakers realize," said Boise Democratic Sen. Nicole LeFavour. "The point at which Idaho legislators start to ask constituents about this and have that conversation, that's the point at which this passes."

Despite a lack of support in the Legislature Boise Weekly could not find any legislators willing to go on record against an amendment. There is no formal or public opposition from business or monied interests, and no organizations are actively working to counterbalance Add the Words. But organizers still know they have hurdles, whether it's in the form of Statehouse security's tendency to throw out the sticky notes within minutes of being posted, or whether it's Otter's awkward hesitancy to acknowledge the effort, or just the simple fact that by 2012, it hasn't happened yet.

"The most opposition we're getting from Republican leadership is just that belief that it doesn't matter to their constituents," said Tolman. "Most of them feel like their constituents would not want them to vote in support of this type of legislation. Republican leadership has also told us, believe it or not, that they don't think discrimination happens anymore. And so they won't give us a hearing to show that it happens, even if we have a lot of stories that unfortunately do show that it happens."

In the coming days and weeks, Add the Words has planned two high-profile events to showcase its efforts: a rally on the steps of the Capitol at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, with supporting rallies in 10 other Idaho cities, and an Add the Words art show, slated for the evening of Thursday, Feb. 1, at Boise's Bittercreek Ale House.

Organizers said they're anxious to channel what they called an energy and "evolving public opinion" for a real shot of passage in the 2012 Legislature.

"I think there's momentum this year," said Emilie Jackson-Edney, head of the Add the Words Idaho Political Action Committee. "I think it's much more visible. There isn't a reason that it shouldn't pass, it's very simple."

If the bill makes it onto the floor, LeFavour is optimistic about passage.

"It's a very tiny set of people amongst the general population, and even amongst legislators, that are strongly opposed," said LeFavour.

LGBT advocates, along with their friends and families, said passage of a bill would have a tangible effect on their daily lives.

"On top of difficult economic conditions, imagine living with the fear of being fired if your co-workers or your boss finds out that you're gay," said Tolman. "It just adds a big stress onto everybody's life if you cannot be truthful."

The personal stresses of having to live a double life in the workplace continue to be a day-to-day issue in the lives of many LGBT Idahoans, hoping for some kind of remedy from the 2012 Legislature.

"Fear of one's livelihood, one's job, one's future, fear for your family--it can be devastating in a workplace if you have to lie about who you are," said Jackson-Edney. "And that's no way to live. You want to live happy, you want to be productive, you want to be able to share in everything this state has to offer--because it's a beautiful state."

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