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The Patchwork Rainbow: Spotty Laws Mean Hidden Lives for Idaho's LGBT Community

Five communities now have anti-discrimination ordinances

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Gloria wanted to buy something to commemorate what many women consider the most important day of their life. The Pocatello grandmother found what romantics call true love in her later years. She had already raised a family and was beginning to welcome a new generation of grandchildren into her life when she met the person she wanted to grow old beside. She didn't need anything fancy or flashy to spark memories of their union. Just something simple, yet special to remind herself of the day she said, "I do."

A windsock caught her eye. She imagined the light fabric dancing in the wind that rolled across the Snake River Plain and blew through her Pocatello neighborhood. She imagined the wind sock hanging from the couple's home, greeting visitors with its vibrant rows of color, sewn parallel to one another to create a rainbow patchwork in the breeze.

"We've never flown it," Gloria said. "I'm afraid to."

Gloria and Eve said, "I do," 17 years ago in a commitment ceremony; and, like many same-sex couples in Idaho, they live in fear.

Gloria fears what would happen if the rainbow of colors flew outside her and her partner's eastern Idaho home. Would someone throw rocks in the window? Would they find their tires slashed? Would they face eviction?

Beyond instances of hate-based violence—which often go unreported or improperly prosecuted—Idahoans like Gloria have faced eviction and termination, even been refused accommodation. Such discrimination happens legally and without recourse in many parts of the state, prompting Boise Weekly to withhold the names of some sources in this article to protect their safety and security.

The past year signaled progress in the movement toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Idaho, with the passage of ordinances extending anti-discrimination protections for gender identity and sexual orientation. People in Boise, Moscow, Ketchum, Sandpoint and Coeur d'Alene are now guaranteed protection from discrimination in housing, employment and accommodations under a patchwork of laws that sew an unfinished quilt of civil rights. The quilt covers some Idahoans, but Gloria said too many people live in fear and that Idaho needs a blanket.

"I know a man who is 80 years old and will go to his grave in the closet about his partner of 34 years. People shouldn't have to live like that," Gloria said. "You can't take the chance [coming out] because there's no [state] law that says you can't discriminate."

Its Time Has Come

Idaho's patchwork of protection symbolizes social movement for some—a shift in values and morals, a move toward social change. Others see the unfinished quilt as a local antidote to a state's refusal to offer a blanket. And for many, spotty anti-discrimination laws can't lift the veil of fear that obscures equality fast enough.

"If we are going to stay as a republic, there has to be one general rule that we are all equal under the law. Until that happens, people will feel that they are not full citizens, that they are not full people and they are not full Americans because they cannot fully participate," said Monica Hopkins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.

Lawmakers and advocates have pushed Idaho legislators to add the words "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" to the Idaho Human Rights Act for the past seven years. Their efforts came up dry as lawmakers refused to grant the legislation hearings.

The tenor of the efforts shifted this year. "Add the Words" legislation co-sponsors didn't ask for a hearing. They didn't even introduce legislation. They listened to lawmakers.

"There are different levels of awareness in different parts of the state. There is a difference in outlook. It's very important that we do not attempt to pass legislation that the people of Idaho are not comfortable with. But we believe that when the people of Idaho understand what the issues are, they will be comfortable with this legislation," said Boise Democrat Rep. Grant Burgoyne.

Hopkins counts a year of success on the LGBT rights movement. Five local municipalities passed anti-discrimination ordinances, and the legislative efforts shifted toward dialogue and education, beginning with a joint House and Senate panel discussion that highlighted the need for anti-discrimination protections.

It's a need not all policymakers see, advocates say. The Sandpoint City Council met dissent from opponents who thought the state already offered protections from gender identity and sexual orientation-based discrimination. And some align equal rights with special rights, Burgoyne said.

"The civil-rights laws do not create special rights. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, on the basis of gender or the basis of religion and other factors that people are essentially born with and cannot change. We all have a sexual orientation and we all have a gender identity. When this legislation passes, my heterosexual sexual orientation will be protected just like a gay man's sexual orientation will be protected from discrimination," Burgoyne said.

"I feel confident that this legislation will become law someday," he added. "The issue is, that for those it affects, it cannot come soon enough."

Idaho's four city ordinances have spurred advocates who can't wait for action from the Legislature to look beyond Idaho for civil-rights protections—and they have forced people to look at anti-discrimination protections as a backyard issue, said Jessica McCafferty, ACLU of Idaho LGBT equality fellow.

"Before, it was easy to think, this is a statewide issue, this is a legislative thing and the Idaho Legislature has a certain way of doing things. You have to massage messages and talk about things a certain way in order to get legislation passed, and we've tried that and it hasn't worked. Now, people feel the obtainable is close and they can have a stake in it and in making their cities welcoming and they can have that value on the books," McCafferty said.

"There are a lot of people out there who want to see this happen. It's now an option," Hopkins said.

It's become an option, in part because of local policymakers' proximity to their constituents, Hopkins said.

"If you serve on municipal government, you go to the grocery store and you run into a constituent. You mow your lawn and you run into a constituent and you have to answer to them all year long. You meet once a week and tackle a slew of issues that are printed in the local newspaper, and when you're mowing your lawn on Saturday, you might run into a neighbor who stops and asks, 'Why did you vote that way or why didn't you vote that way?'"

It's not unusual for local governments to act before state policymakers, said Gary Moncrief, Boise State University political science professor, listing instances of cities passing smoking bans, gun restrictions, even texting while driving measures.

"All of these are basically examples of cities passing ordinances that are more progressive than what the state was willing to do, but it could go the other way—where state policymakers are more progressive, some local governments, probably most likely to be rural counties, might pass more conservative ordinances," he said.

Either way, Moncrief said, legislatures more often than not need to be prodded into action.

"I am fond of telling my legislative and state policy classes that a favorite phrase among policymakers is, 'Its time has come,'" he said. "Legislatures, especially in states like Idaho, are generally not agents of rapid change. Sometimes it takes years to bring the policymakers around, especially absent very clear evidence of the policy preferences of the public. But eventually, policy does change as legislators become more comfortable with and knowledgeable about the issue, and as coalitions develop."

That process may finally be happening in Idaho, Moncrief added.

"The 'informational session' on Add the Words was a very positive step in this regard, in my opinion. Maybe not a big enough step for many, but it was important in getting the legislators to start to view this as a legitimate issue," he said. "Remember, it took years to get a Martin Luther King holiday established in Idaho. But eventually, 'Its time had come.'"

Patches and Holes

The uneven patchwork of protection still means that not all Idahoans are treated equally under the law. Access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness depends not on birth right for many, but what borders they cross, what zip code they call home and where they clock in for work. And the civil rights that some enjoy can disappear in a second.

"People commute to Boise from Nampa, Caldwell and Meridian for work. They have protections at work in Boise, but they don't have protection at home in Meridian," said Lisa Perry with the Add the Words campaign.

Gloria said if Pocatello laws looked like Boise laws, the windsock and its rainbow of colors that have come to symbolize gay rights, pride and freedom would come out of storage and sway in the Idaho wind. But the rainbow stays in the box. At least for now, she said.

Gloria made a plea for municipal protections before a packed Pocatello City Council meeting in April. On the agenda: a local ordinance that would expand gender identity and sexual orientation protections to Pocatello residents and visitors.

"I stood up for the first time and said I was gay. I said that night that there are a lot of people like me—people who quietly live a life of fear—senior citizens who can barely walk, let alone march and we are gay and we are afraid. We are afraid that senior housing would not be available, afraid that someday that job will disappear or our tires will be slashed or there will be graffiti on our homes. I felt very strongly that there were people like me who were living a quiet life of fear, who were afraid to speak out."

After a yearlong process of study groups and lobbying, Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad cast the tie-breaking vote to defeat Pocatello's measure. The Idaho State Journal reported that the loss followed a last ditch effort by the Mormon church to sway the council behind closed doors through meetings with a conservative lobbying group. Bald didn't respond to Boise Weekly's request for an interview.

Pocatello City Council passed an amended version of an anti-discrimination ordinance June 6. A watered-down version of the measure contained small business exemptions and required IDs for restroom use, but those additions were stripped amid vocal dissent before the council passed the ordinance with a 4-2 vote.

Pocatello's initial vote marked the first defeat in local efforts to pass protections and a night of apologies from Gloria to her partner.

"I said, 'I'm sorry, I let you down. I came out and they didn't pass the ordinance and I put us in danger.'"

Gloria left the meeting to find $700 worth of vandalism to her car tires. And she promptly went back into the closet.

It's legal to evict, fire or refuse service to someone in Idaho because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"We know that no one in our community should fear losing a job, losing a home or being turned away from a restaurant for who they love," Boise City Council member Lauren McLean told council members before they unanimously passed an ordinance in December 2012 that added "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" to the city's anti-discrimination code.

"Discrimination tears at the fabric of our community and unless we take steps as leaders to end it, people—our loved ones, friends and colleagues—can't or don't fully participate in the community and the fabric of our community that makes us whole. Because we're in a position to change that, we should," McLean said.

McLean's comments came on the heels of emotional testimony before the City Council in November 2012 that had many telling stories of fear, discrimination and a life of lies to policymakers for the first time. Council members saw an enormous sign in the back of the auditorium decrying sodomy and heard limited commentary decrying special rights. But the marginal messages were drowned out by five hours of testimony that largely recounted stories of fear, discrimination and lies.

People spoke of terminations, prying job interviews that mined answers about relationship status, and anti-gay assaults. A moving testament came from Add the Words Co-Chair Mistie Tolman, who spoke of working in an environment of terror and fear—one where she kept coworkers at distance, where photos of family members stayed hidden away and where she stood on shaky ground.

"Small innocuous questions become the difference between livelihood and not," she said.

The Boise City Council heard testimony that advocates have pleaded with state lawmakers to hear for seven years.

"They are missing the human aspect of this story. They're not hearing the stories that pinpoint how important these protections are. They're saying that these stories don't matter," Perry said.

Advocates say if lawmakers would listen, they'd hear voices that echo the pleas and fears heard before the Boise City Council. Voices that align with a panel discussion that came out of the last legislative session that had business leaders touting the economic benefits of equality, clergy aligning anti-discrimination protections with the teachings of Jesus Christ and policymakers calling protections the right thing to do. They'd hear of opportunities lost to a life of secrecy and of the freedom that rings when laws protect all people.

"It's a life of incredibly close-kept secrecy. It has limited their life choices and you'll never be able to measure that," former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour said of Gloria and others like her. "You have a choice in Idaho, you either live closeted or you limit your choices."

And the closet isn't an easy place to live.

Laws that protect people on the job extend beyond a person's work life, Hopkins said.

When a person doesn't have to hide who they are at work, they can take their significant other to Christmas parties, they can take their spouse to a co-worker's wedding, they can have a picture of their partner on their desk, Hopkins said.

"What that does for a community is it allows people to live as their whole selves," she said.

"I would challenge people to take one day and try to go through that day without talking about your significant other. Try to make it through one whole day without mentioning that other person. And strip your workplace of any remnants that might indicate that you have a significant other or a family with that significant other. And see what happens. You'll constantly have to be checking your pronouns; you're constantly going to have to remember who you told what. If you've ever told a little white lie upon a little while lie, upon a little while lie, you've realized that you're hiding your whole self. You're constantly checking and rechecking yourself. It creates a hyper-nervousness and you don't feel safe."

Living Without Fear

Former Sandpoint City Council member John Reuter saw freedom fly after the Idaho panhandle city become the first municipality in the state to pass anti-discrimination protections. The avowed Republican didn't see the issue as a conservative or liberal issue. It was about doing what's right.

"It's the civil-rights issue of my generation, of this era, of our time. I really felt like I was obligated to act," he said.

Reuter recalled a woman who came to the Sandpoint measure's hearing. She stood quietly in the auditorium and never testified. Weeks after the ordinance passed, the woman came to thank Reuter. She said she was afraid to testify but told him that she could now bring her partner to parties.

"The people who need the protection that the [Idaho Human Rights] act would provide are afraid to speak out because they don't have the protection that this act would provide," Reuter said in a February panel discussion.

"For me, this issue was about living without fear. Why should people live in fear?"

Suzie Matsuura found that same fear-fueled silence in Pocatello. The Pocatello Human Relations Advisory Committee chair began digging into research, city codes and evidence of discrimination as she prepped for the introduction of Pocatello's anti-discrimination ordinance. She heard story after story of abuse and discrimination: One mother lost her teen son to suicide after enduring the anti-gay taunts of school bullies; an Idaho State University student felt powerless after her landlord entered her apartment without notice and demanded that she immediately vacate because she was gay; a convenience store clerk lost his job after his boss called him gay.

"They were anonymous because people are afraid," Matsuura said of the stories she collected. "You could lose your job just because someone thinks you're gay."

Billie also remains silent.

"I am not out," said Billie, a Pocatello native. "I'm 40 years old and I have never held the hand of my significant other in my hometown."

Billie came out at the Pocatello City Council hearing, but like Gloria, reclaimed her silence after the nay votes overrode the passage of Pocatello's ordinance.

"When I said my name, I paused," Billie said, remembering the risks she took appearing at the meeting. "Most people who came into that [meeting] didn't have a sense of being protected."

Fear drives silence beyond the hearing room and workplace. Boise Weekly found fear prevents many victims of anti-gay hate crimes from reporting attacks to police, knowing that if they report that they were kicked and punched between homophobic slurs, that gay-bashing becomes part of the public record and could draw questions about their sexuality and open them to discrimination.

If theses voices could speak and lawmakers would listen, Matsuura said legislators would hear voices echoing the same story.

"You'd hear a plea for fairness. They'd say, help me, I'm not getting a fair shake," she said.

Catch-22

"Coming out makes a huge impact. It's a courageous act," said Randy Blazak, sociology professor at Portland State University and executive director of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime.

Social movements swell from small ripples that build waves of change. Blazak sees each step out of the closet as akin to the small feats that propelled the civil-rights movement of the '50s and '60s forward. Each outing challenges oppression, stereotypes and prejudice and become the LGBT rights movement's march to Selma, sit-ins at lunch counters and refusal to give up the front seat on the bus.

Every act of coming out makes sexual orientation and gender identity minorities less and less different and the collective outings have turned the tides toward LGBT rights.

"The more people that are out, the harder it is to sell a stereotype," he said.

But there's a catch-22, Blazak said. Fear keeps people in those closets and those closets limit the progress that creates the changes.

Still, "In a few short years, discussions have changed. Young boys are taught that a real man steps in when someone is bullied. There's been such a change around gay marriage. There are more and more straight-gay alliances," he said. "We'll look back at this as a leap. We'll also look back at it with a certain amount of sadness."

State and national surveys show a swell of support for LGBT rights. Almost all Idaho voters—93 percent—think that skill and ability should be the basis of a person's employment, not sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a 2011 poll carried out by noted Republican pollster Moore Information and commissioned by the ACLU of Idaho. The same survey found that 78 percent of Idahoans favor anti-discrimination legal protection for the LGBT community.

"To fail to make policy that reflects that is either the height of cowardice or the height of cruelty," LeFavour said.

"I think we have a critical mass [of lawmakers] that knows it's the right thing to do in their conscience. The only thing standing in the way is politics," she said.

Until politics change, family gatherings won't feel quite right for Gloria. Her 15-year-old granddaughter lives out-of-state and she herself is slowly coming out. She wears her hair short. Her clothes hang on the masculine end of the gender continuum. And her grandparents worry what she might encounter on the streets of Pocatello.

"You'd think that we of all people would encourage her to spend a few weeks with us. But we can't do it. If we lived in Boise, it would be a whole different story. She could walk around and be safe. I would like my granddaughter to visit and know that she's welcome and she's going to be safe," Gloria said. "And before I go to my grave, I would like to fly my rainbow windsock without being afraid."