Down with Discrimination

By on May 22, 2018

Jackson Town Council moves forward with non-discrimination ordinance


JACKSON HOLE, WY – Jackson Town Council’s message to the LGBTQ community on Monday was clear: We will protect you.

During a May 21 workshop, Town Council voted unanimously to move forward with an ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in housing, workplace and public accommodations.

Prior to that workshop, Councilor Bob Lenz had voiced opposition to such an ordinance. In March, he pointed to the costs of administration and enforcement. That initial vote passed 3-1 with Councilor Don Frank absent.

“I don’t see where you can afford it, no matter how much you want it,” Lenz said at the time.

But his argument did not pan out in a report town staff presented Monday. It estimated the administrative cost of the ordinance would be just $250 to $700.

When it comes to enforcement, Lenz’s other concern, the ordinance would indeed require more from town staff.

The staff report acknowledged that the impact on staff would be “significant.” When complaints are filed, various town departments could be called upon. Complaints could warrant investigation, processing, prosecution and adjudication.

For councilors on Monday, it was a small price to pay.

“Everybody in our community will be put on notice that not only is this the right thing to do, but also if you do discriminate you will face criminal prosecution,” Councilor Jim Stanford said.

The town passed a non-discrimination resolution in 2015 but it was widely acknowledged to lack teeth, as there is no method of enforcement.

“With something like this, it takes a while to work out the kinks on our side,” Councilor Hailey Morton-Levinson said. “But we have a better ordinance for it.”

While Frank believes “this is a community that does not conspicuously discriminate,” he has been concerned the 2015 resolution was “not strong enough.”

Lenz, meanwhile, reversed his position: “It’s all been said. Let’s go ahead.”

Behind the Scenes

Mark Houser, Jackson PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) coordinator, has been instrumental in advancing the NDO over the past several years.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting, Houser submitted a letter to town councilors addressing concerns over staff impacts and costs.

He conducted his own research to learn about the impacts on other regional municipalities that have passed NDOs. He heard back from 19 of 29 cities and towns. Most reported no impact whatsoever.

“Based on this input, very few municipalities have had any complaints filed and very few unintended consequences have happened,” Houser said in his letter.

Houser does not envision an NDO would bring forward a great number of complaints. Instead, “it will send a clear message to members of our LGBTQ communities that the town recognizes their presence and worth in our community, and will allow individuals to feel safer and embraced,” he said.

Legislation protecting and respecting LGBTQ communities has been shown to help reduce teen suicide attempts, as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2017. “I would hope an NDO in Jackson would have a similar effect,” he said.

The draft ordinance takes youth into special consideration. It notes that anti-LGBTQ discrimination “has an especially harmful impact to young residents.”

In addition to being a means to embrace all members of Jackson’s community, an NDO provides a mechanism by which discrimination can be recorded, Houser said. The fact that regional municipalities have not experienced an excess of complaints is not a reason to avoid an ordinance.

“I have heard many stories from teens and adults in our community as to the harassment and discrimination experienced due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” he said. “Without an NDO in place, these events will continue to be noted only anecdotally.”

The ordinance outlines economic benefits. Prohibiting discrimination will be attractive to new residents and businesses and is necessary for economic growth, the ordinance states.

Houser garnered support for the NDO from several local businesses including Snake River Brewing, Habits, Dwelling, Aspens and Pearl Street markets Sudachi, Westside Wine and Spirits, Grace Home Design, MADE, Mountain Dandy, Animal Care Clinic, Jackson Hole Contracting and this newspaper.

State Lacks Protections

Wyoming is woefully behind in protecting citizens based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Some parts of the state are intent on going backward not forward, as was the case with a recent decision by Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington. WyoFile reported that the college’s board of trustees abandoned proposed policies protecting transgender employees and student athletes from discrimination after protests from Wyoming GOP chairman Frank Eathorne and other Republican lawmakers.

The national LGBTQ organization Human Rights Campaign has its eye on Wyoming. Xavier Persad, HRC legislative counsel, pointed out there is a national hate crime law spurred by the murder of Matthew Shepard, killed in a homophobic hate crime in 1998 when he was 21 years old. No such hate crime law exists in Wyoming.

Wyoming does issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. However, it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals otherwise. The state does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, or public accommodations—thus the need for ordinances in local municipalities.

The state does not have a law that addresses harassment and/or bullying of students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It is legal in Wyoming to exclude transgender healthcare from insurance coverage, and transgender state employees do not receive transgender-inclusive health care.

In Human Rights Campaign’s “Municipal Equality Index,” Jackson, often considered the “blue dot in a red sea,” received a score of 18 last year—out of 100. The national average is 59.

Only Laramie—the Wyoming city where Shepard was murdered—has passed a non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBTQ residents. A few others, like Jackson, have non-binding non-discrimination resolutions.

In Jackson, several advocates for the NDO showed visible surprise and relief at the unanimous vote. Outside the meeting, LGBTQ advocate Matt Stech said, “We were shooting for four to one, but obviously this was much better.”

Stech noted that an NDO would protect people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including heterosexuals. “Technically, right now in Jackson you could be fired for being straight,” he said. No protections for sexual orientation mean nobody is free from discrimination, he noted.

He said the message to Jackson’s LGBTQ community is the key outcome of the day. “An ordinance will send a more embracing message to LGBTQ people than mere tolerance.”

The Town Council will have a first reading of the non-discrimination ordinance June 4.






About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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