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Civil Rights, But Not Unions, Come to Kalamazoo | The Nation

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Civil Rights, But Not Unions, Come to Kalamazoo

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Anna Clark
Anna Clark's journalism has appeared in The American Prospect, Salon, UTNE Reader and other publications. She is a...

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The lesson is an ugly one.

Audrey teaches middle school near Kalamazoo, Michigan. She's also a lesbian--but if she's fully open about this, it will put her job, and her ability to take care of herself and her children, at risk.

"It is not safe to talk about my personal life with my professional colleagues," Audrey (not her real name) says. "I do not attend most staff gatherings outside of school, because I am uncomfortable not being able to be myself."

But "it does not affect my daily work as a teacher that much," she goes on. "And that is the point. I do the best I can in my classroom, I care about my students, I plan lessons, grade papers, manage student conflict. None of my professional responsibilities are affected by my sexual orientation."

Nonetheless, Audrey feels that she needs to limit how open she is about herself for the sake of her job--even after her community overwhelmingly passed the nation's most recent nondiscrimination ordinance, protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing and employment.

She's hardly alone.

While marriage equality dominates the national conversation about LGBT rights, the basic battles against job and housing discrimination are still fraught and fierce. It is perfectly legal in twenty-nine states to fire someone because that person is gay, lesbian or bisexual, and in thirty-eight states to fire someone because that person is transgender. As late as 2005, 39 percent of gay and lesbian employees reported experiencing discrimination or harassment in the workplace over the previous five years, according to a Lambda Legal survey. Among transgender people, research reveals that discriminatory treatment is even more pervasive. Meanwhile, the Federal Fair Housing Act does not protect people from LGBT discrimination in home sales, rentals and financing; local initiatives to fill the void are patchy at best.

In what can hardly be called a coincidence, lesbian, gay and bisexual people are more likely to be poor than their heterosexual counterparts, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Despite the widespread myth of disproportionate affluence in the gay community, 24 percent of lesbians and bisexual women are poor, compared with 19 percent of heterosexual women; 15 percent of gay men are poor, compared with 13 percent of straight men. The National Transgender Survey found that transgender people report particularly high poverty rates, with 27 percent receiving incomes of $20,000 or lower and more than 15 percent with incomes of $10,000 or lower.

"The media tends to focus more on marriage than nondiscrimination, even as large parts of country struggle with discrimination," says Lisa Mottet, Transgender Civil Rights project director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Meanwhile, many in the LGBT community don't realize that civil rights law doesn't protect them, says Jay Kaplan, staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan. "Our [state's] civil rights law doesn't include sexual orientation or gender identity," Kaplan says. "It's legal to discriminate. I get calls from people who feel discriminated against in housing and so on; and in many of these localities without a human rights ordinance, there's nothing to protect them." With no federal protection and with too few inclusive state laws, gay rights advocates in cities like Kalamazoo (population 72,000) are left to push for municipal protections.

After Kalamazoo's city commission unanimously approved expanding local nondiscrimination protection to include LGBT status, opponents gathered enough signatures to put the issue on a ballot. This cued a feverish campaign that caught national attention. Supporters of the ordinance gathered under the mantle of One Kalamazoo, a diverse, locally driven initiative that partnered with state and national LGBT organizations. Opponents used familiar tactics, decrying the "special rights" that the nondiscrimination policy would allow and distributing literature that pictured men lurking around women's bathrooms. ("There was clearly a lot of confusion about what it means to be transgender," Audrey says.) Both sides distributed signs with slogans urging voters to say no to discrimination.

The opposition's tactics were so aggressive, in fact, that Kalamazoo College professor Marigene Arnold believes that it moved more people to support the ordinance. "A lot of people were really upset with how meanspirited and ugly the opponents' tactics were," Arnold says.

Buoyed by a tremendous grassroots effort, Ordinance 1856 was approved in November by an impressive margin of 62 percent. The referendum passed in all but three of the city's polling places, as well as in the absentee ballots, making Kalamazoo the seventeenth community in Michigan to accept a measure extending civil rights to LGBT people. Kalamazoo is located on the traditionally conservative west side of the state, where only five other cities have affirmed anti-bias policies. Throughout the campaign, the city's leadership--including Mayor Bobby Hopewell and city commissioners--maintained their support for Ordinance 1856.

In a state that has banned gay marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships, these new protections in Michigan's fifteenth most populous city are a significant win. "It feels good for people to validate who you are, to say that who you are is OK," Arnold says. The procedures for the new policy are being hammered out and are expected to be ready to process complaints in early April.

While Audrey says the campaign made her proud of her city, she's skeptical about Ordinance 1856's effectiveness--enough so that she doesn't yet feel comfortable being out among her colleagues. "(The ordinance) is maybe more of a symbolic move than anything," she says. The penalty for discrimination in Kalamazoo--a civil infraction--is a fine of no more than $500, plus legal costs. The ordinance does not permit the aggrieved person to sue the violator directly; instead, the person must file a complaint with Kalamazoo's city manager, who will then investigate and attempt to resolve the issue through conciliation. If no solution is reached, the manager refers the complaint to the city attorney for possible prosecution. The aggrieved person can prosecute only if the violator breaks the conciliation agreement facilitated by the city manager.

So will Ordinance 1856 be effective on the ground? "It depends," says Bernadette Brown, policy director of the Triangle Foundation, a Michigan organization that organizes for LGBT civil rights.

Brown indicated that the ordinance is only as effective as it is exercised--which puts the burden on the LGBT community to not only be aware that it exists within city limits but to test unsteady ground by using it. But she sees power in the ordinance, even if it is more symbolic than practical.

"Whether or not complaints are filed (and) prosecuted, the ordinances do serve a very valuable function," she says. "They acknowledge that LGBT people are valuable members of the community, and that our risk of discrimination and harassment is increased simply because of who we are, and that's unfair.

Local nondiscrimination ordinances across the nation are uneven: some cover sexual orientation but not gender identity; some cover housing but not employment; some are in name only and don't actually allow for any private-action lawsuit or fine. In practical terms, this means that the LGBT community has vastly different rights from one city to the next, to say nothing of one state to the next.

A 2007 Michigan Fair Housing report found that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity persists even in areas where an ordinance is in effect--in test scenarios, 22 percent of LGBT people attempting to find housing in cities with an ordinance in effect experienced discrimination--but it is slightly less pervasive than in its counterparts without any protections--where it occurred in 30 percent of test cases. More discrimination occurred for rentals than for mortgages.

Meanwhile, as local battles play out on a daily basis, efforts to take federal action have stalled. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is legislation intended to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and, possibly, gender identity in the private sector workplace. Obama supports ENDA, and in 2007 ENDA, without gender identity protections, was passed in the House. But the DC Agenda reported earlier this year that because Democrats no longer have a filibuster-proof majority, it is unlikely that ENDA will pass in 2010.

While identity-based bias is widespread, it remains a buried story relative to marriage, and lately, rescinding "don't ask, don't tell"--partly because discrimination is difficult to prove and therefore to fight.

It's also because, in addition to outright employer discrimination, employees are masking their identities. Discrimination is "not always someone getting fired, but it's people hiding who they are so they don't get fired," Mottet says. "It's hard for people to tell stories, or else they'll lose their job. The biggest story of discrimination is staying in the closet when it comes to orientation. Or if the person's transgender, it's choosing to delay, sometimes indefinitely, their transition."

For as prevalent as the discrimination is against people who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, discrimination based on gender identity reaches epidemic proportions. "The severity of discrimination against transgender people, even in places where it's OK to be gay, is shocking," Mottet says. "It's really hard to conceive of." Preliminary results from the Task Force's recent national survey on the impact of gender identity discrimination find that 97 percent of those surveyed have experienced some type of harassment or mistreatment at work because of their gender identity, Mottet reported. Forty-seven percent have been fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of their identity. It is, then, perhaps not surprising that transgender people experience double the rates of poverty and homelessness compared with their non-trans counterparts.

But the grubby work of nondiscrimination battles is not entirely separate from the fight for marriage equality. Access to marriage affects how same-sex couples raise children, pay taxes and inherit property, and in turn influences how an LGBT person is perceived as an employee or tenant. Or as Matt Kailey, managing editor of Out Front Colorado, puts it: "Once our community is able to become fully and openly engaged in all aspects of society, others will see us, meet us, know us, and realize the utter unfairness and baselessness of denying us full equal rights."

In the meantime, nondiscrimination activists refuse to cede ground. "I'm not leaving" Michigan, Kaplan says. "Let the people who are so intolerant leave the state."

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