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From the Far Margins

A seat at the lunch counter

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Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a public bus to secure her right to public accommodation. Hundreds of people sat in at lunch counters to gain the right to be served in the same manner as their white neighbors. The right to shop, eat, use a swimming pool or drinking fountain, fill a gas tank or get a car repaired is a right of public accommodation. Today in Idaho, neither gay nor transgender people have secured this right in any but a few major cities. We can be legally turned away from restaurants, hotels, grocery stores and day care centers. And there's nothing we can do about it.

It is bad enough that when we go to smaller Idaho communities, we and our partner or spouse probably won't both walk up to the front desk together to register at the hotel. Going to dinner we might not mention our anniversary or hold hands. Even in Boise a transgender person may avoid all situations where they could be asked to leave a business. Too often they've been told, "We don't serve people like you."

We protect people from discrimination on the basis of religion because that's the right thing to do. Turning someone away from your business because they're Mormon, Jewish or Muslim divides us and makes people live in fear. We do not function as isolated groups. To pretend that we do ignores the consequences of rejection and discrimination.

Stephen Nelson was killed in Nampa because a few men felt he was not worthy of life, respect or kindness. They didn't see him as worthy of waking up in the morning to see the sun or going to work where people loved him and he made a difference in the world. They've been led to believe he deserved to be defiled and beaten because he was gay.

Gay teenagers feel the weight of their implied unworthiness, of being asked to be something or someone they're not. Idaho's suicide rate for gay and transgender youth is consistently one of the highest in the nation. We make no attempt to reassure these young people that their whole lives won't be about rejection.

Idahoans don't inherently have a problem with ending discrimination against gay and transgender people. Even the most conservative among us believe we should be allowed to support our families, do business, work hard and contribute to the communities where we live. In fact, most people think we're already protected from discrimination by state or federal law.

While the LDS church has struggled with the issue of ending discrimination against gay and transgender people in the past, its present struggle seems to be with public accommodation specifically. In Idaho, because of the predominance of members of the LDS church in leadership as well as in the membership and chairmanships of the Legislature, we need them to lead in addressing how to end discrimination in public accommodation for gay and transgender people.

The Mama Dragons are LDS moms who've become staunch defenders of gay and transgender children who've faced bullying and attempted or completed suicide. As fiercely protective of their children as they are, they've been constrained from criticizing church policy because calling into question doctrine or policy can impact the standing of a person's family within the church. What they say could risk the salvation and prosperity of their husbands or families.

Yet, at a time like this, their voices are critical to understanding the impact of failing to end the discrimination, bullying, and attitudes of marginalization and rejection that gay and transgender teens experience in Idaho.

The LDS church formally endorsed Utah's non-discrimination bill knowing it excluded public accommodation. It allowed gay and transgender people inclusion in a limited and relatively toothless pre-existing non-discrimination law. If that is what the church so far has grown comfortable accepting, then we know work has to be done to move them further toward accepting public accommodation as a fundamental right of dignity and humanity.

Sadly there are Idaho lawmakers who would risk sending the message that discrimination in public accommodation is acceptable in order to say they made progress on gay rights. What precedent does it set to say gay people are not worthy of the full protection of our own Human Rights Act? What does it say to deny us simple inclusion in the Idaho law that protects other classes of people from discrimination in education, employment, housing and public accommodation?

It'll take powerful stories, compassion and reasoning to remind lawmakers and the church that LDS businesses have always served gay and transgender people and this service is necessary and respectful of the family.

It has taken love and work to get churches—not just the LDS church—to see those of their religion can accept rather than reject the existence of gay and transgender people. They can allow us to drink at the fountain and sit at the lunch counter with them—even if we're given no place in their eternal plan. Lawmakers and elders must see it's time to let their own gay children sit at that counter and buy the cake, because the loss of so many young people tells us the price of continuing to reject them is far too great.

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