Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce President Kate McAlister wasnt expecting it when a woman in her 60s walked up to her at a community event, hugged her and started crying.
She said, I want you to know that because of what you did, for the first time in all our lives I can take my partner to a Christmas party without fear of being fired, McAlister recalled.
This was after McAlister helped push through a citywide ordinance in Sandpoint barring discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In Idaho, its still legal to fire someone because theyre gay, or to evict them from their home or deny them service in a restaurant. But its no longer legal within the city limits of Sandpoint.
When it passed, there was a round of applause from the audience, said Mayor Marsha Ogilvie, who added that she was surprised to learn that Sandpoint was the first Idaho city to enact such a law.
If tiny little Sandpoint can do this, anybody can do it, McAlister said. Im not sure whats stopping us.
Pocatello is now drafting a similar ordinance that its City Council could vote on this fall, and Boise is looking into an ordinance as well.
Idaho appears to be in the early stages of a process thats already happened in neighboring states. In Oregon, a dozen cities and counties passed local nondiscrimination ordinances regarding sexual orientation before a statewide nondiscrimination law was enacted in 2007. In Washington, local laws were passed in a dozen cities and counties before a statewide law passed in 2006.
Twenty-one states have laws banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Sixteen of those states also ban discrimination based on gender identity.
In Utah, 15 cities and counties have enacted nondiscrimination ordinances for sexual orientation, including Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, which did so with the strong support of the Mormon church, the states dominant religious organization.
But Utah hasnt passed a state law, despite repeated attempts in the Legislature. In Washington, the process was a long one: A bill was introduced every year for 29 years before it finally passed.
MOST AMERICANS DONT REALIZE
In 2008, the Boise State University public policy survey queried Idahoans about whether they thought it should be illegal to fire someone because they are, or are perceived to be, gay. Sixty-three percent said yes.
Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, which pushed for that states law, said: Most Americans dont realize that in many places it is still legal to be fired, denied housing or thrown out of a business for being gay.
While a statewide, or even a nationwide, policy would be great, passing local ordinances provides the opportunity to build grass-roots support and educate the public. It lays important groundwork with both the public and policymakers across a state.
Idaho lawmakers have rejected legislation each of the past six years to add the words sexual orientation and gender identity to the states Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age or disability. In many of those years, including this year, lawmakers refused to allow the bill to be introduced.
Advocates were stunned at the party-line vote against introducing the bill this year, after a statewide outpouring of support for it that featured well-attended rallies, including one that drew more than a thousand people to the state Capitol.
Some major Idaho employers, including Hewlett-Packard and Qwest Communications, backed the legislation the past two years
COMMERCE CHIEF: STATE TO PAY ATTENTION
Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer said the state plans to follow closely whether commerce or recruitment is affected by the lack of protection for sexual orientation, because as that issue evolves and develops, were going to need to be prepared to respond to it.
Steve Griffitts, president of Jobs Plus in Coeur dAlene, said that he recruits about 25 companies a year to move to North Idaho and that hes never had one bring up the issue.
That has not been on my radar screen at all, he said.
Five cities, including Boise, Moscow and Caldwell, already have personnel policies for their city employees prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. But those policies dont affect discrimination by other employers in the cities, or in housing or public accommodations, such as bars, restaurants and hotels.
In Pocatello, the citys Human Relations Advisory Committee has been collecting stories from local residents who say they have experienced discrimination over their sexual orientation or gender identity.
People are very reluctant to have their name attached to it at all, because they could lose their job or housing, said Susan Matsuura, chair of the committee. So weve been collecting those anonymously.
A dozen stories have come in so far. Among them was the experience of a same-sex couple who had been happily living in a rented apartment when some repairs were needed. The landlord learned that the two men shared a bedroom. They were evicted.
Another resident told of silently and uncomfortably enduring offensive gay jokes at work, for fear of the consequences of revealing that he is gay.
He needed the job very, very badly, Matsuura said. They didnt understand why he didnt laugh.
BIETER: ORDINANCE IS UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY
Boise Mayor David Bieter said that after the state failed to act, The question was: Can we? Should we?
He said several City Council members raised the issue, and he asked the city attorney to research it.
Its uncharted waters for us, he said. Our job is to look out for the well-being of Boise, and thats what we do.
Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU in Idaho, said many major corporations and national companies that do business in the state already have nondiscrimination policies for their own workforces, including Micron Technology, Albertsons, Microsoft, Alaska Airlines and Starbucks.
That still leaves their workers vulnerable to discrimination in housing and other areas, and if they work for an independent employer or a small business, she said.