Steve Mounkes of Wilder stood in a line that wound from the west end of the Idaho State Capitol through the corridors on Monday, past the rotunda and into the Statehouse’s east wing. The four-person-broad line moved slowly as people prepared their testimony for House State Affairs Committee members about why Idaho should or should not add the words “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to the Idaho Human Rights Act.
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Preachers, families, grandmas, students and Idahoans from the far reaches of the state — and even out of state — filled the lines that eventually packed the hearing’s auditorium, overflowed the overflow rooms and crowded the Statehouse’s main hallway. Some had waited for eight years to testify at the Jan. 26 hearing.
Mounkes had just one question for lawmakers.
“Why?” he asked.
Mounkes wanted to know why Idaho was even having the “add the words” conversation that was slated to fill the morning of Jan. 26 with testimony and then resume again in the evening.
“We already voted on this in 2006,” the opponent to the Add the Words bill or HB 002, said, referring to 2006 anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment that Idahoans approved and that has recently been overturned by a federal court.
“You’re allowing a few people to influence the entire state,” he wanted to tell lawmakers.
Shelley Axtell wanted to send lawmakers a different message. She wanted to tell them about her granddaughter. She’s openly gay on an Idaho campus, Axtell said.
“I fear for her safety on a daily basis,” she said. She stood among moms, dads and grandparents who wanted to tell the story of Idaho’s sons and daughters. Dozens of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) supporters reminded the committee that homosexuality is not a choice. The stories that emerged in the early hours of testimony spoke of fear, discrimination and suicide attempts.
“I would really like to ask the committee if they have a child or grandchild that they love more than anything else,” Axtell said.
The hearing gave lawmakers the opportunity to ask opponents and proponents questions. A few lawmakers took the opportunity, searching for minor clarifications, but those ready to testify had questions of their own. Like Mounkes, many asked, “why?”
“Why would you not want to add protections for all Idahoans?” Add the Words spokesperson Tim Walsh asked.
Manchester University (Indiana) sociologist Barbara J. Burdge has asked many of same questions that Idaho civil rights advocates are asking, including “Why?”
It’s an old question in sociology, perhaps the question of sociology.
Burdge was specifically interested in the “why” behind a lack of federal protections from workplace discrimination in her 2009 Journal of Policy Practice article that used a multi-theoretical model to explain elusive civil rights protections for LGBT minorities. While her questions centered on workplace discrimination, her ideas bolster the stories of legal and ideological discrimination from across Idaho that lawmakers heard on Jan. 26. A spectrum of research, including Burdge’s, show that there’s no single answer to Walsh’s question. The answers come from layers of analysis that look at culture, social interactions, social structures, power and control.
Burdge’s multi-pronged approach suggests that lawmakers’ reluctance to legislate LGBT protections reflects a larger pattern of exclusion that is, “simultaneously created and reinforced by a network of social policies affecting numerous facets of [LGBT] persons’ individual lives.” Burdge finds that those seeking civil right protections should study the local historical, social and political context and appeal to shared values and rhetorical “pressure points” in pressing their case.
“This group, distinguished by sexual orientation, faces systematic barriers to, if not outright exclusion from, many of the rights and resources widely considered entitlements of citizenship,” Burdge writes. “The lack of employment protection leaves LGB persons vulnerable to direct discrimination (e.g., firing, harassment) and indirect discrimination (e.g., reduced productivity, compensatory workaholism).”
“WE HAD TO DO SOMETHING”
Lawmakers and the people of Idaho heard stories of the direct and indirect discrimination LGBT workers face on the job as victims discrimination testified before the House committee and shared testimony on the steps of the Statehouse at a Jan. 17 Add the Words rally. The bill would bar discrimination in Idaho on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in workplaces, housing and public accommodations.
Throughout the testimony and years-long campaign, many spoke of the stress that comes with constantly having to check one’s pronouns in the workplace and many spoke of the searing fear that accompanies every commute to work and shift at the office.
Karen McMillin told a crowd of hundreds that overflowed the Statehouse steps at the Jan. 17 rally about the fear that propelled her and her partner to fight for the addition of LGBT civil rights protections to Idaho law. She spoke the fear that gripped her partner, past Add the Words campaign co-chair, Mistie Tolman, after she suspected she was outed in the workplace.
“We were newly dating and she was a single mom and terrified of losing her job,” McMillin said. “I was afraid of losing my job as well and together we became so disgusted at the injustice of it all that we had to do something.”
The recent federal ruling voiding Idaho’s same-sex marriage ban gave the couple the right to say, “I do,” but any Idahoan can still lose their job on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
That workplace fear is very real and rooted in widespread discrimination, said sociologist Maura Kelly. The Portland State University professor’s research focuses on LGBT workplace discrimination in the Portland area and she said that if it’s happening in the typically progressive and liberal communities of Portland, we can assume it happens everywhere.
“The research shows that there is ongoing discrimination and harassment of [LGBT] people,” she said. “Everybody talks about some form of harassment and discrimination at some time.”
Numbers point to the extent of discrimination transgender people face. A study by National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that in one sample, nearly 81 percent of transgender workers had experienced harassment and discrimination on the job at some time and 29 percent had lost their jobs due to their gender identity.
“What’s going on there is old fashioned discrimination and harassment.” Kelly said.
Kelly found in her own research that it’s sometimes difficult for LGBT people to shatter the glass ceiling simply because some LGBT employees must leave the workplace for their own safety and well-being.
“While policy is not going to fix everything, certainly having a legal standing is going help people,” Kelly said.
Other sociologists working in queer and gender studies echo Kelly, including Burdge, who calls for the adoption of federal legislation as a first step in remedying the workplace discrimination and the gaps that stem from a patchwork of state and municipal laws that only protect some Americans. Currently, 10 Idaho municipalities have gender identity and sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws written into city code, leaving swaths of Idaho populations without protections.
While Kelly’s latest research calls on new collaborations between labor and the LGBT communities, she sees of the struggles of LGBT people as connected with the struggles of other oppressed minorities. And sociologists have long seen the genesis of prejudice that underlies the discrimination as the same. It’s hard to find an introductory sociology or social problems textbook that doesn’t link homophobic sentiments with the ideologies that underpin many other “isms.”
Like racism and anti-Semitism, homophobia includes, “an intolerance toward otherness; a fear of lives, perspectives, and practices that one doesn’t understand; and a visceral desire for a social hierarchy that puts some people on the rungs below you,” writes sociologist Stanley Eitzen in his introductory social problems text.
“There’s still this rhetoric of ‘us v. them,’ in America,” said Portland State sociologist, Randy Blazak. “There are still safe categories to discriminate against.” And Idaho’s LGBT citizens fall into one of those categories.
POWER AND SCHOOL LESSONS
Jennafer Mitchell drove from Homedale to the Statehouse with her children and formative lessons in mind. She said she wanted to give her three homeschooled kids a chance to learn about government.
“I hope that they see government process,” she said. “We taught them that there are two different sides (to debates).”
Mitchell’s children listened as reporters interview her about her opposition to adding the words “gender identity” and “sexual orientation,” to the state’s Human Rights Act.
“I feel like it’s a business’ decision to decide who they want to conduct business with,” she said. “You shouldn’t be bullied into conducting business with anyone.”
The mother said that if someone refused to serve her, she’d take her business elsewhere.
“It’s not hard with the internet,” she said.
And she said landlords and employers have the right to evict or fire someone because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“If they’re willing to speak out, they should be willing to accept the consequences,” she said of open LGBT people.
Opposing testimony echoed Mitchell’s sentiment. One opponent said he didn’t want transitioning boys in the same locker room as teen girls. Some said religious freedom gives them the right to choose who they do business with. Others said the bill would actually incentivize discrimination.
“There are stereotypes and misconceptions,” that still exist, Blazak said.
Interactionist theories of racism have been applied to homophobia to explain how interactions shape our world views and inform stereotypes and misconceptions. These perspectives see “racism in the head,” as a learned behavior that’s transmitted from one person to the next through interaction and socialization. The theories also explain how racism can run in families and how religion shapes ideology.
“The suggested added words are clearly contrary to the Bible,” one preacher told lawmakers. “No one else’s (religion) is better than mine.”
The interactionist theories pioneered by George Herbert Mead see the fear and intolerance Eitzen writes about as transferable while conflict theorists point to the role of power and control in maintaining the social hierarchies. And those at the top, or those who feel like they have something to lose aren’t often willing to give up their power, Blazak said.
“People who don’t feel like they have power have to feel like they have someone to have power over,” Blazak said, noting that researchers have found a correlation between people of lower social status – including lower wage earners and the less educated – and higher rates of intolerance.
But, the executive director of the Coalition Against Hate Crimes said, “there is such a larger issue here and it’s about the ability to be who you are.”
“The religious community, the political community and the economic community has the power to control those labels… Who defines who you are? Do you do it or do other people do it? Traditionally, it’s who has the most power (and) it reinforces the fact that they do have power,” Blazak said.
But, Blazak said, sometimes people in power realize they were all wrong when it comes to the labels they impose on groups and when the people they’ve labeled as an “other” turn out to be no different than anyone else, the powerful have to rethink their labels and everything else. This often happens when someone finds out someone they know or love is gay. Suddenly, everything they thought about being gay flies out the window.
“Once they heed that and they’re wrong on that, they start thinking, ‘What else was I thinking wrong on? A comparison is when the Catholic Church arrested Galileo for saying that the earth went around the sun and not the other way around. The feeling was, if they were wrong about the cosmology of the universe, what else are the wrong about? Being wrong on such a core issue allows people to challenge that authority,” Blazak said.
Lawmakers who don’t want to add the words, may not want to be wrong either, Blazak explained.
“So it’s clinging to authority even if that authority is a sinking ship. They’re holding on to it because it regenerated their position of power… Wielding power reinforces that fact that you do have power,” Blazak said.
Theories on race note that racism also enables the powerful to retain their control and social advantages. This racial stratification also offers better occupational opportunities, income and education to white people. While theorists have made sense of homophobia in much of the same way, sociologists also note the layered causes of homophobia – from the repression of one’s own sexuality, to a desire to maintain a social hierarchy, to religious ideology. While the causes of oppression are often the same, the experiences of oppression are sometimes very different, Kelly said.
“Many of us who do research in this area see these struggles as connected. We see that discrimination related to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation… is all part of the same struggle. We think that only by addressing all of these dimensions of oppression, can we all truly be the most free,” Kelly said.
She said that while the oppression of minority groups intersect, it’s not useful to compare the experiences of oppressed groups. Minority groups share different histories and have different interactions with social structures and institutions. For starters, the LGBT civil rights movement’s timing makes LGBT activism very different from the struggle for race and gender equality, Kelly said. This wave of LGBT activists has learned from the efforts of race and gender equality activists.
“Those movements paved the way and showed how change can happen,” Kelly said.
But LGBT people move forward in a context that’s very different. Many are not surrounded by peers and may not have friends or parents who have experienced the same oppression. Some even go home to find oppression from family.
“Queer people for the most part do not grow up in queer families. Unlike racial minorities and unlike women who might have a female relative in their lives that can talk to them about their experiences of discrimination that they have faced, many [LBGT] have a very different kind of life history. Many [LBGT] people are rejected by their family,” Kelly said.
That puts new issues at the forefront of the LGBT movement, including a need to sometimes protect LGBT youth from family and to find ways to make schools safe. Stories from inside and outside of the Statehouse speak to the oppression that targets youth, and the youth that have nowhere to turn.
LGBT ally Gretchen Bates stood in the Statehouse last session with her hand over her mouth in a silent protest of the Legislature’s refusal to “add the words.” Her action landed the straight, 67 year-old grandma in jail. Bates said she risked arrest for all the kids who couldn’t speak.
“I’ll never forget the day I stood outside Boise State University with hand over mouth. So many came up and said, ‘thank you.’ But there we so many who stood in the distance with very sad eyes and mouthed the words, ‘thank you.’ They are afraid to speak,” Bates said.
Other people’s grandkids moved Bates to action. When she learned that a friend’s grandson and his partner leaped to their deaths from an Idaho bridge, Bates had to act. When she heard her 15 year-old granddaughter tell the story of a gay classmate who recently attempted suicide for the third time, she had to act.
“She asked, ‘Why are grown-ups so mean?’ I don’t know why.”
But the grandma has a hunch.
“It’s based on fear and the unknown,” she said. “And we need to educate people.”
Things look very different than they did during the days of Stonewall, Blazak said. Public sentiment has changed and according to a December 2011 survey conducted by noted Republican polling firm Moore Information and commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, 78 percent of Idahoans favor anti-discrimination legal protection for LGBT people. And a recent Gallup poll shows that in 2014, 55 percent of Americans said that same-sex marriage should be valid – that’s up from 27 percent in 1996. Times are changing, Blazak said. And there’s a reason for that.
“There’s been this domino effect from people coming out across America. Now, there’s very few people who can say that they don’t know someone who’s gay,” Blazak said.
Coming out can be powerful in changing minds, Blazak and Kelly said. It’s hard to discriminate against someone that you know or love, they said.
When someone outs themselves, they can change minds, Blazak said. They’re no longer a feared other, but the trusty neighbor, adept co-worker, or the loving kid the fearful has always known. And that’s what changes minds, Blazak said.
“It’s much more difficult to deny someone rights if you put a face to it,” Kelly said.
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.