Gov. Butch Otter reacted angrily to a Feb. 12 Idaho Statesman headline: "Otter says Idaho's anti-gay reputation is not hurting business."
"I did not accept the premise," he told a Statesman reporter. Added Otter: "Idaho does not an have anti-gay reputation is what I'm saying! You guys are dead wrong on that!"
He may be right. While recent protests at the Legislature received national coverage, there is no polling available to measure outsiders' perceptions of how Idaho treats lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
No other data definitively show that Idaho is much different than other states whose laws don't allow same-sex marriage or other benefits. While gay Idahoans and civil rights leaders say that Idaho cannot be described as gay-friendly, they generally cite anecdotal rather than documentable data when it comes to Idaho's image and reputation.
A leading researcher on prejudice against gays said there's no data showing Idaho has a national reputation for being anti-gay.
Otter said gay rights advocates have used the national media to brand Idaho as intolerant.
The Legislature's rebuffing of an eight-year campaign to add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the Idaho Human Rights Act puts Idaho in company with 28 other states that don't protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment and housing.
Idaho's policies on marriage, hospital visitation, hate crimes and bullying are seen as hostile by gay rights groups. Polls of Idahoans show that public support for gay marriage ranks 37th among the states, putting Idaho ahead of Utah, Wyoming and 11 Southern states for the share of its citizens who would support gay marriage.
What the numbers do tell us:
In 2006, 63 percent of Idahoans voted to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions, a policy now being challenged on constitutional grounds in federal court by four Boise lesbian couples.
According to New York Times projections based on polling trends, 36 percent of Idahoans would have voted for a same-sex marriage ballot initiative in 2012. Polls put national support for gay marriage at 51 percent in 2012.
Since the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act last year, national support has risen to 55 percent. The Times projects that 55 percent of Idahoans would vote in 2020 to permit same-sex marriage.
Idaho's four-member, all-GOP congressional delegation scores zero on gay rights issues, including marriage, employment nondiscrimination and tax parity, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest LGBT rights group.
63 percent of Idahoans told pollsters at Boise State University in 2008 that "it should be illegal to fire someone because they are perceived to be gay or lesbian."
An estimated 2.7 percent of Idaho adults are LGBT, compared to the national figure of 3.4 percent.
'WE DO HAVE TO WORRY'
Idaho's bad publicity from neo-Nazi activity in the 1980s and 1990s and its relative obscurity make the state vulnerable to its characterization as intolerant, said former Gov. Phil Batt.
Batt authored the 1969 Human Rights Act. As a senator, Republican Party chairman and governor from 1995 to 1999, he fought white supremacists. In October, Batt endorsed the "Add the Words" campaign.
"While I don't want to quarrel with Gov. Otter, I do believe that we have an image problem and that we should work hard to dispel any national concern," Batt said last week. "We do have to worry about our reputation."
A retired farmer and onion packer, Batt said an intolerant reputation makes it difficult to attract workers who value diversity. "Large businesses, particularly where they're hunting for uniquely qualified employees, have a hard time getting folks to come to Idaho or stay in Idaho if our image is bad."
Josh Parrish, the 2011 valedictorian at Nampa High School, is a political science student at American University in Washington, D.C. Parrish, who is gay, says Idaho is lumped in with Utah, Wyoming and Montana as anti-gay.
"In terms of the rest of the nation, it's comparatively unwelcoming and unfriendly," Parrish said.
National coverage of the arrests of "Add the Words" protesters this month "broadcasts a very negative image," Parrish said. "I really wish the Legislature could see that, because I know that they have the best interests of the state at heart. Nobody wants to see their home state thought of so negatively."
Protest organizers are targeting national media, sending news releases to CNN, Fox, NBC and The Associated Press in New York.
A decade after the bankruptcy of the Aryan Nations Church and the death of the Rev. Richard Butler, the neo-Nazi brand remains. Parrish said outsiders still principally identify Idaho with potatoes and white supremacists. "That definitely persists," he said.
TIME TO LEAD?
Marilyn Shuler, executive director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission from 1978 to 1998, said she's distressed by the Legislature's disrespect for advocates of "Add the Words."
"How can we not even hold a hearing for people who just want to say we think it's wrong to discriminate?" Shuler said. "If we don't have an anti-gay reputation, we certainly should. I sure don't think we're seen as gay-friendly. How could we be?"
Shuler said Otter's refusal to take a position on "Add the Words" puzzles her because of his libertarian roots. "Probably in his heart of hearts, he sees himself as an honest and sincere guy who wants to give everybody a fair shake. There's just a disconnect."
Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Denver-based Movement Advancement Project, an LGBT think tank, said policymakers may not be exposed to evidence of intolerance because of the absence of anti-discrimination laws.
"If you're living in a state where you can be legally fired just for being LGBT, then it makes it very hard to speak out," Mushovic said. "You can be living every day in fear. If Idaho really wants to be known as a tolerant state, then pass those laws and tell LGBT people, 'Hey, we're not just going to say we're tolerant, we're going to be tolerant.'"
Six Idaho Lutheran pastors wrote legislative leaders early this month urging a hearing. "We would like to hear the argument against amending the act to include 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity,' especially since seven cities in Idaho have already instituted sexual orientation-based protections for gay residents in the past few years," they wrote.
The lead author, Pastor Jim Grunow of Boise's Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, said he hopes Otter will end his neutrality. "My question to the governor is: If in fact Idaho is not anti-gay, why don't you come out in public support of adding those four words? Lead the state."
CITIES TAKE ACTION
As the pastors noted, seven Idaho cities, beginning with Sandpoint in 2011 and including Boise, have passed anti-discrimination laws applying to LGBT people. About one-quarter of the state's population lives in those cities, which also include Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Ketchum, Moscow and Coeur d'Alene.
Tony Stewart, who co-founded the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations in 1981 to counter neo-Nazi activity, helped convince the Coeur d'Alene City Council to add the protection in June.
"It's actually a grass-roots movement, which is very helpful," said Stewart, a retired political science professor at North Idaho College.
Having the local law boosts Boise on the Municipal Equality Index published by the Human Rights Campaign, which gives the city a 56 score on a scale of 100. Boise wins points for employment policy, law enforcement and relationships with the LGBT community but loses points because state law prohibits benefits for same-sex partners and the city lacks a Human Rights Commission and LGBT liaison.
Stewart, however, said statewide action is necessary to counter what he calls "the stain" left by the Aryan Nations days.
"We carry that burden," he said. "When news reaches other parts of the country that we've failed to advance human rights, it adds to the challenge. Something that's so ingrained is very hard to correct."
Last June, the Idaho Republican Party's State Central Committee passed a resolution urging the GOP-controlled Legislature to invalidate city protections for gays.
Former Bonner County Commissioner Cornell Rasor, chairman of the Resolutions Committee, got national attention for having said, "I'd hire a gay guy if I thought he was a good worker. But if he comes into work in a tutu ... he's not producing what I want in my office."
The Legislature has so far ignored the party's advice to strike down the city ordinances. But the message was absorbed by Melissa Lavitt, a lesbian and former dean of the BSU College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs. "How does someone interpret that as anything but hateful?" she asked.
Lavitt said she left the university in January in part because she sometimes felt unwelcome and unsupported.
Lavitt and her partner of 13 years, Mari, aren't married. But Lavitt's new job as senior associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis provides Mari health insurance and other benefits prohibited at Idaho's state schools. Partner benefits also were available in Kentucky and California, where Lavitt was a job finalist.
When she began at BSU in 2008, colleagues sold Boise as "the Seattle of Idaho," Lavitt said. "Yeah, the state is homophobic, yeah the state is sexist, but Boise is open-minded and welcoming. I would say that without policies and practices that operationalize that open-mindedness, it's just a smile on the street. There isn't any muscle."
Lavitt said some doubted her ability to win over donors. Also, her suggestion that modest benefits such as health club memberships and reduced tuition be added for partners was rejected. "HR at Boise State wouldn't touch the issue, with the rationale being we don't want to do anything to offend our very conservative Legislature and have it haunt us at budget time," she said.
An anonymous comment on an annual evaluation said Lavitt pursued "a lesbian agenda" and falsely accused her of "inappropriate relationships with female faculty," she said. "With a different boss, that's a career-destroying comment."
After airing the accusation at a faculty meeting, Lavitt said, "Some people thought I should just have thicker skin. I'm in a position of power and authority. What happens when we have students who don't enjoy the privilege that I did?"
Mushovic, of the Movement Advancement Project, said Idaho is among 28 states with a "low equality" score based on laws governing marriage and relationship recognition, discrimination, safe schools and anti-bullying, hate crimes, health, family and medical leave, and other measures.
Mushovic praised a Feb. 10 Idaho Supreme Court decision allowing adoptions by same-sex couples. The court struck down a denial of Darcy Drake Simpson's adoption of her partner's two boys.
That change will boost Idaho's standing on 10 state policies tracked by the Human Rights Campaign and on eight measures in the Spartacus International Gay Travel Index. Idaho's Spartacus score will rise from a tie for 42nd with points for adoption.
Still, Idaho isn't likely to be viewed as gay-friendly, said professor Gregory Herek, an international expert at the University of California-Davis on prejudice against LGBT people.
"I don't know if you could say Idaho has a reputation as an anti-gay state," Herek said. "I would say it doesn't have a reputation as being a strongly pro-gay state."
Josh Parrish, the Nampan who attends American University, said he senses growing tolerance at home, in part thanks to "Add the Words" supporters and annual events such as the pride parade at the Statehouse.
"There is an improving warm, very welcoming community, particularly in Boise," Parrish said. "Unfortunately, that image hasn't really been delivered across the nation, especially when news stories coming out of Idaho are usually very negative."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics