During the recent 21 hours of testimony at the first public hearing for adding the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho’s Human Rights Act, a broad cross-section of society detailed concerns for everything from the safety of loved ones to the impending doom of eternal damnation. Citizens on both sides of the issue cited constitutional and biblical defenses. Many cited gendered and sexualized fears experienced in public restrooms — also on both sides of the rights debate.
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Considering the vastly wild array of opinions submitted to the legislative committee, we wanted to look deeper than the reactionary and beyond the radical. So, we sat down with five varied thinkers — three of whom testified — and asked them to elucidate their perspectives on the issue of “adding the four words.” Our questions attempt to explore why our interviewees feel the way they do, what factors influence their opinions and what the future holds for the LGBT community in Idaho.
We chose to interview people who have thought deeply about this issue and who have been involved to varying degrees in the fight for and against adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s antidiscrimination law. Astrid Wilde, a transgender woman who is very involved in the Add the Words campaign, stated that she first took notice when the movement began gaining real momentum and extensive media coverage a couple years ago. Emily Walton, an Idaho political activist and proponent of “adding the words,” was first introduced to the idea in 2011 when she got involved in student lobbying through Boise State University. For Tim Beck, an avid student of U.S. political theory and friend of Astrid’s, this has been an issue on his mind for several years because he saw from the beginning that his perspective did not fit either of the main camps of opinion being represented, which we will explore further.
Domenic Gelsomino, Idaho’s first openly gay Republican candidate for the State Legislature, confronted the issue when he ran for office last November. Finally, Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, encountered the idea when former Idaho State Senator Nicole LeFavour approached him in hopes of getting his organization’s support for the Human Rights Act amendment – support which he did not end up providing.
WHAT DRIVES CIVIL RIGHTS POSITIONS?
First, we asked for the driving reasons for each subject’s position, hoping to understand the main factors that shaped their opinions. Tim and Wayne both argued that the marketplace and market forces, if left unregulated, would disempower discrimination on their own. In addition, both expressed concern about the role of government and that it should be as hands-off as possible. Though each argued for the same ends — not enshrining more categories of discrimination in state law — Wayne’s answers were calculated and often reframed our questions, whereas Tim responded with heart and reason. Tim acknowledges that there is rampant discrimination, but stated that the law does not yield equality, nor does it change the minds of individuals or society. Wayne envisions an Idaho in which individuals through associations and businesses work against discrimination, without the aid of the government. They each believe that when individuals dismantle discrimination it feels more authentic and sends a better message than relying on government enforcement.
For Emily and Astrid, the main focus was addressing the problems of discrimination already occurring. Astrid’s main concern was public safety and, as a transgender woman, she spoke about how she has been directly affected by the lack of state action. At one point, she had even been violently taunted by a passing truck with a covered license plate and pelted with glass bottles while she rode her bike at night. Emily says she feels that societies do better when every citizen is able to contribute equally to the whole. She believes this is not a matter of “special rights,” but instead one of “equal rights.” Both cited historical examples of where the government’s intervention was seen as necessary, such as slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and women’s rights.
Domenic says his policy preferences derive from the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He is a “literal constitutionalist” and believes that, since the government has gotten involved, it has a constitutional obligation to extend equal protection to the LGBT community. Essentially, it is a choice between protecting everybody or nobody, Domenic put it. In contrast, Wayne submitted that, “It is easy to say discrimination is wrong, therefore, we should pass a law.” But, he strongly believes that the law is not a remedy for achieving the common goal everyone seemed to share. His faith in the marketplace is bigger than his faith in the government. He was sure to say that, “Idaho is not a discriminatory area. They are welcoming, kind, generous and non-discriminatory.”
We found it interesting that faith played no role in any of our respondents’ decisions or approaches to this issue, especially considering that this narrative — specifically for those opposed to adding the four words — is typically dominated by religious feelings. All of the people interviewed asserted that they had crafted their views as legitimate means to decrease or disallow discrimination against the LGBT community. The House State Affairs Committee heard numerous accounts of actual incidents of discrimination during testimony in January, and, whether strictly for logic and consistency — Domenic’s feelings — or for concern for public safety and for LGBT people being scared about coming out about who they truly are in fear of losing their jobs — Astrid and Emily’s position — all argued that something ought to be done.
DIFFERING PATHS TO END DISCRIMINATION
In an Idaho Politics Weekly poll from December 2014, 67 percent responded that discrimination in housing, employment and business based on sexual orientation and gender identity should be illegal in Idaho (n=520, +/-4.3%). Astrid is worried that the present climate in Idaho has reached a point where reform will always come too late. In other words, something needs to be done “sooner rather than later,” she argued. Nonetheless, Astrid noted a continuing, gradual social acceptance on the horizon.
Now, “All that stands in the way,” according to Emily, “is legislative support.” Emily continued optimistically to cite Idaho’s youthful population and suggested that views on this issue are generational, meaning that as the next wave of young people become voters, it will no longer be much of a debate. Tim concedes the same, but feels progress will come even quicker if the government does not get involved. Domenic, drawing from an historical perspective about the advancement of human rights protective measures, thinks legislative support is inevitable. Wayne was not sure that government recognition of LGBT rights was inevitable, preferring, again, that it remain up to the individuals who make up society.
Of the many opinions represented throughout the testimony at the House State Affairs hearing, we were curious if our interviewees found any opposing ideas convincing or reasonable. Wayne was sympathetic toward those who have been discriminated against, saying that, “Anyone aiming to do anything to stop discrimination always has a good case. But, not only do you not change hearts by passing a law… I’d just much rather know that the person I’m doing business with is choosing not to discriminate rather than being forced.” For the others, no opposing ideas really resonated.
However, when asked which opinions they found to be the most absurd, we received some unique answers. Astrid found it odd that so many people viewed being gay as a “choice,” and she pointed out that one’s “faith or creed” was certainly a choice and one that is already protected in Idaho law. Emily found it ironic that, “When it comes to protecting old, white, conservative men” — those who made the laws — “…the laws are very convenient and needed. Yet, when it comes to protecting someone else, the laws are bad and we don’t need them.” Domenic joked that he had not known that he was a “necrophile and pedophile” until he went to the hearings and heard some of the testifiers saying that all gay people were such things. He went on to say that they are right about not wanting the government to be involved, but wrong in their reasoning, because, “They also do not want the government to allow the progress to happen.”
WHAT ARE THE OBSTACLES TO ENDING DISCRIMINATION?
Respondents offered two differing ideas as to the obstacles to their ideal outcome. Is it the Legislature or individual citizens standing in the way of what is best for Idahoans? Astrid and Emily believe the biggest obstacle is changing the hearts of individual legislators and they remain hopeful after seeing the committee emotionally moved by the testimony. Only slightly differing, in that he still sees government as standing in the way, Domenic refers to the Idaho Legislature as a “pseudo-theocratic system rather than a constitutional conservative democracy.” On the other hand, Tim and Wayne see the citizenry as the major impediment, because they are the ones committing the discrimination. Tim noted that this notion is not widely represented in the larger political conversation and Wayne simply wishes to leave the issue up to “market forces.”
Adding the four words to Idaho’s anti-discrimination policy means different things to different people. For Astrid, it would mean that the equal protections that already exist under the Idaho Human Rights Act, that continue to be effective, would simply be extended to the LGBT community. Emily says that it is about making a statement that, “As a state, we take a stand and we say, ‘This is how we expect the people in our state to be treated.’” Domenic views this as an opportunity to uphold the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause in its intended entirety and “not being inconsistent in interpretations of our country’s foundational laws.” He posited that if we already protect other marginalized populations, there is no equal protection until protections are extended to the LGBT community. Wayne expressed that it would make things more difficult for businesses to thrive in the marketplace and even more difficult for LGBT people to get jobs for being who they are, because they might be seen as a liability or a legal risk.
Each interviewee expressed diverse opinions on the significance of the political debate and implications of the “four words controversy.” Emily placed value on the importance of basic fairness and professed its presence as “a building block for how to maintain a society that is good for everyone.” Tim explained that with regards to private property, “The transactions should always be voluntary and not forced,” as “this will have greater effect on progress.” Domenic stated that “This is a somewhat important issue when it comes to securing rights and helping marginalized people get to work and get a good education.” Wayne labeled this as a small component of his overall political involvement due to his extensive work on so many political issues.
MISSING FROM THE DEBATE
When asked if there was anything they felt has been suppressed in the overall dialogue around this issue, each person presented some fairly original thoughts. Astrid grounds her opinions in the belief that “we are all human beings” who, in essence, share the same goals and have the same values. “We do the dishes in the morning just like everybody else,” she reminded us. Emily brought up something thought-provoking: “Isn’t some of the nasty testimony of the opposition enough evidence as to why we should add the four words?” Tim wishes that more people were exposed to the ideas he holds about private property and freedom. He ensures that he, like the overwhelming majority of people, does not want to see discrimination flourish, but feels laws will not help, but only hinder progress. Domenic wants this to be seen as a human-to-human issue and that, while protections under the law do not exist, “People are being pushed out of Idaho, because they are not comfortable being LGBT or an ally in this state.” Wayne holds that innovations in the marketplace, like having a sign that says “This business does not discriminate against X and Y” will be much more dynamic and exciting than government intervention.
A lot was said during the three days of testimony and one day of committee debate that neither side had heard before. Astrid was surprised to see so many people from her childhood testify so adamantly in opposition to adding the four words. Emily was surprised in a different way: she felt that committee members who voted down the bill along party lines were nonetheless emotionally affected in a way that was promising for future discourse. Tim was taken aback by so many Christians claiming religious freedom-based rights for themselves, yet being very closed about extending the same rights currently not opened to the LGBT community. Wayne, too, was confused about what exactly the religious people were asking for in terms of religious exemptions from following the potential law because questions of determining what constitutes a sincere belief are never made explicit in the legal sphere. Domenic added, with lighthearted humor, “Nothing that comes out of the Idaho state Legislature surprises me anymore.”
Overall, all five of our interviewees appeared devoted to eradicating discrimination in one way or another. So, what is next? Both sets of opinions — adding or not adding the four words — as presented by these five individuals, derive from reasonable thinking and are imbued with good intentions. We certainly learned that it is possible to hold completely opposed, yet soundly reasonable opinions about one issue. In a place as politically divisive as Idaho, we hope to have elucidated some of the calmer perspectives adopted by those involved.
Nonetheless, if everyone agrees on the same ends — to end discrimination and make our state a great place to live — then one side must relent. Whether delayed legislation stems from the political game or merely from a need to argue for the sake of argument, if something needs to be done soon, then something ought to be done now. Do we suppress the marketplace or do we continue to allow the discrimination of our citizens — who, after all, do pay taxes like everyone else — based on their “sexual orientation” and/or “gender identity?”
Fear of government intervention in the “marketplace” is nothing new; neither is harassment or the “public safety” concern. For those who believe that changing the minds of individuals and businesses is the best route: How much time will it actually take for the “marketplace” to come to a general agreement that this discrimination is wrong? How many more cases of harassment must be committed before property owners decide to change their minds? And for those who believe government should intervene: “Just because there is a law,” as Wayne insisted, the people with whom we do business might not actually appreciate people for who they are since the businesses would be forced to serve them.
In the end, we were surprised about the sensibility of two incompatible thought processes. It is a lot clearer that we do indeed potentially live in a world where there is more than one right answer and, more importantly, that no one answer addresses every possible negative outcome. No idea is immune to imperfection and no theory is impeccable. But by rigorously seeking to understand where each opinion derives its reasoning and justification, the next chapter of conversations can begin to be written. Recognizing the spectrum of thought in a way that shaves off the radical and reactionary fringes of both sides, we hope this piece sticks out as less noisy and, instead, is informative and encourages people on each side of the issue to healthfully entertain sympathetic relationships with those in opposition to them.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.