FEATURE: Homegrown Equality – Teton towns ahead of state legislatures on LGBT issues

By on February 10, 2015
Driggs city councilman Ralph Mossman was invited to meet President Barack Obama last month during the President’s visit to Boise, ID. Mossman said that work done on the local level has great ability to influence change on the state and national levels. (Photo credit: Ralph Mossman)

Driggs city councilman Ralph Mossman was invited to meet President Barack Obama last month during the President’s visit to Boise, ID. Mossman said that work done on the local level has great ability to influence change on the state and national levels. (Photo: Ralph Mossman)

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The state legislatures of Wyoming and Idaho are among the nation’s most conservative when it comes to social issues, in particular rights for the LGBT community. However, the communities of Jackson Hole and Teton Valley, which straddle the border between these two states, are more in line with a national trend of increased tolerance and rights for this demographic.

“The whole country has changed and the whole world has changed,” said Driggs City Councilman Ralph Mossman last week.

On the heels of the 2014 elections, which saw progressive gains in the respective boards of county commissioners, the towns of Jackson, Victor and Driggs have plowed ahead on providing equal protections to its employees and the communities at large.

Inspiring Idaho

Driggs officials recently passed a nondiscrimination ordinance with little fanfare after officials in Victor did the same last year. These two cities are two of 10 in the state of Idaho that have made this move despite the Idaho State House Affairs Committee voting strictly along party lines to deny a change in state law that would provide equal protection for sexual orientation and gender identities.

As for Wyoming, Jackson became the first city in the state to add language to its workplace policy for equal considerations for sexual orientation and gender identity last spring. Currently the state is considering the same adoption for work force policy.

While these two initiatives in these bordering states are different, the message is largely the same. Times are changing, attitudes are changing and grassroots efforts on the local level may eventually bring Wyoming and Idaho in line with the larger national conscience.

“Two years ago we failed to pass even a resolution,” said Mossman, a one-time Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in Idaho. “It shows how quickly our community has changed in two years. If Driggs had passed this two years ago, Driggs would have been the second city in Idaho to pass the resolution.”

A year ago, Victor handily passed a nondiscrimination act. A few members of the public attended a work meeting to voice concerns over religious rights, and whether residents could withhold public services based on religious beliefs.

“Our job and role as city council people and mayor, is to protect all of our citizens. Where do you draw the line?” asked Victor City Councilman Jeff Potter at the June 2014 meeting. “My personal opinion is that drawing the line is the separation of state and church. I do not believe that the public realm is the place for those kinds of distinctions. If you have religious beliefs, you are free and welcome and encouraged to practice those in the sanctity of your church, or the privacy of your home, or other associated affiliations. … Just like it is no longer OK to deny service to an interracial couple, it is not OK to deny service to someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. … Religious convictions and beliefs do not trump human rights.”

Driggs did add language for full protection in its employee manual, but failed to even consider a resolution in 2012. Mossman said this time around he was prepared to make stronger arguments in favor of the ordinance, but in the end, didn’t need to.

“First we brought [the ordinance] up to council and nobody commented,” said Mossman, who added that the public would have had four opportunities to comment throughout the public process. “After the second reading, one councilman said, ‘Why keep reading?’”

And this was before a packed council meeting in January.

“Two years ago we had opposition,” Mossman said. “We tried an ordinance, tried a resolution and people didn’t want to go there. So when Victor passed theirs, they did it quickly, acted as if it was no big deal and in some ways it isn’t. Treating everybody the same shouldn’t be a big deal.”

It took Victor officials one month from start to finish to pass their ordinance. It was adopted July 2014.

Conversely, the Idaho House Affairs Committee heard days of emotional testimony for and against full protection of rights. The campaign, “Add the Words” was launched and people lined the hallways of the state capital in silent protest in the hopes that state leaders would not remain silent when it came to equal protections.

“It’s a huge difference with what we did here and what the state did not do,” said Mossman, who was at the state capitol last week on other business and heard some of the Add the Words testimonies. “The city is taking a position that we are community leaders – we are taking a leadership role – we are trying to send a message that discrimination is not acceptable. That’s the goal. A lot of reasons it came to light included the suicides, bullying, and what we can do to prevent that.”

In the last decade Teton Valley has worked to overcome an unusually high suicide rate while addressing bullying. Mossman said he hopes the cities of Driggs and Victor have sent messages to those who have struggled that they also are an important piece of the community.

Susie Gorney agrees. As executive director of the Driggs nonprofit Family Safety Network, her organization publically supported the Driggs City Council and the ordinance.

“We serve everybody and include everybody,” Gorney said. “We actually have services that are specific to special needs and to individuals of sexual preference and gender identity. There are several things that are great with local cities and that is how change happens. We’re not talking about individuals; we’re talking about humanity. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Stand up, take notice and make the change and hopefully it will go back before the State Legislature. People in Boise were impressed by our cities. It does make a difference. The change, it will come. It will.”

But for now, lawmakers in Idaho have moved on, much to the chagrin of advocates.

Cindy Gross, chair of the Add the Words campaign, released the following statement last week: “Emotions are high after hearing three days of powerful testimony from hardworking Idahoans who simply want to be judged on the merits of their work. Although we are happy to hear that some members of the committee are committed to showing more compassion, it’s not enough and we are very disappointed in the committee’s vote. We will see the Human Rights Act updated in Idaho, and we’ll keep working on this issue until all hardworking Idahoans are protected. With these powerful stories our legislators can no longer claim that there isn’t discrimination in Idaho.”

 Wyoming Republican Senator Leland Christensen is a co-sponsor for Senate Bill 115 that will add equal considerations for sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. (Photo credit: Leland Christensen)

Wyoming Republican Senator Leland Christensen is a co-sponsor for Senate Bill 115 that will add equal considerations for sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. (Photo: Leland Christensen)

Equity in the Equality State

Compete Wyoming is a business coalition whose efforts are dedicated to improving Wyoming’s competitive advantage by strengthening the state’s law and image with regard to discrimination, and they are the advocate and force behind Senate File 115.

“This bill is about 9 to 5, 7 to 7, or whatever your workday is. It is about judging workers on their performance, qualifications and talent. It’s just bad business to discriminate, and updating this law is important in the Equality State so that workers are productive, taxpaying and safe,” said Liz Brimmer on behalf of Compete Wyoming, in a news release last week.

Senate File 115 would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Wyoming’s current nondiscrimination law. Existing law, under the “Wyoming Fair Employment Practices of 1965,” includes protections for qualified workers preventing discrimination based on someone being disabled, or their age, sex, race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry or pregnancy.

The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Senator Leland Christensen of Alta, Wyoming.

“[This bill] is certainly consistent with the Constitution and the American Dream,” Christensen said last week. “We want to judge people on what they do and let their actions speak.”

The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services reports they received approximately 40 complaints over the past four years from state residents alleging job discrimination based on their sexual orientation. According to Compete Wyoming, recent cases filed include human excrement placed in an employee’s work locker and lunch box, and another employee who was tied naked to the front of a work vehicle while co-workers played “chicken” with his life.

“The one thing in Wyoming is that most of us thought that was illegal – 70 percent of Wyoming thought this was illegal [to discriminate] and we thought it was a good time to tighten up,” Christensen said. “For me, I think we need to be careful about the way we treat people at work. When people are being judged and harassed over those issues it is disappointing. The bill is in committee right now and the odds are good that it will make it out of committee.”

For Mark Houser, working for change on the front lines of social justice issues can feel slow but also is a real opportunity for community growth.

“There is broad national support for passing anti-discrimination legislation,” Houser said. “A September 2013 poll by Americans for Workplace Opportunity reported that 68 percent of voters surveyed supported the national Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which included support from 56 percent of Republicans surveyed. I believe the majority of Wyomingites also believe it is time to extend these protections to the LGBT community.”

Christensen added, “To offer some of these protections seems appropriate. It’s about following the Golden Rule and treating others like you want to be treated.” PJH

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