Advocates talk LGBT protections at city level

City officials among attendees at meeting

by Brett Dunlap, Reporter


PARKERSBURG — Local Parkersburg residents are seeking the help of a statewide advocacy group to help craft a nondiscrimination ordinance to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals which can be introduced by Parkersburg City Council in the near future.

Around 15 people attended the meeting Sunday, put on by Fairness West Virginia, at First Christian Church on Washington Avenue, including Councilmen John Reed and Jeff Fox as well as City Attorney Joe Santer.

Fox was approached by people in the community to see what could be done in crafting such an ordinance and getting it introduced at council.

“My job is to represent everyone and understand the issues people have,” he said.

He and others around the community had contacted Fairness West Virginia to see what could be done locally.

Fairness West Virginia is the statewide civil rights advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians. Founded in 2009, its mission is to ensure that LGBT people in West Virginia can be open, honest and safe at home, at work and in the community. Fairness estimates there are around 57,000 LGBT West Virginians.

Among the topics discussed Sunday included why the ordinance is needed, what the LGBT community faces locally and what are the possible objections that will be raised from people against these kind of measures.

Fairness West Virginia Executive Director Andrew Schneider said in many communities across the state there are no protections for LGBT people who have been intimidated, harassed and had property vandalized with people in authority doing nothing to address it.

“No one should have to live like that,” Schneider said.

Charleston passed the first LGBT ordinance in 2007 and has helped protect people from discrimination, including one lawsuit that was brought and won against a non-profit organization which had fired an employee after she was outed on social media as being a lesbian.

“Hopefully, having these kind of ordinances serve as a deterrent to this,” Schneider said.

One aim of Fairness is to amend the West Virginia Human Rights Act to include “sexual orientation and gender identity.”

According to Fairness, 68 percent of West Virginians support non-discrimination. Around 96 percent of Fortune 500 companies include lesbian, gay and bisexual nondiscrimination in employment policies while 70 percent include transgender protections.

“They recognize that is the way to attract the best and brightest talent to work for them,” Schneider said. “As a result, those companies do not want to go to a place that do not have protections, because they are not going to be able to attract the best pool of people.

“It is good for business.”

One problem many local and state leaders have agreed on is young people are having to leave the state to find employment elsewhere because of the lack of opportunities in West Virginia which Schneider acknowledged and said many LGBT West Virginians are looking for these kind of protections in the areas they want to settle in and want such protections in this state.

“Many people are watching to see what happens,” Schneider said. “We can’t afford anymore people.

“We are losing people at a far faster rate than anywhere else in the country.”

Fox said such a measure could bring a number of businesses to Parkersburg, both large and small.

“This issue … is another piece of the puzzle in revitalizing our town,” he said.

The Religious Freedom Bill, which was defeated last year in the West Virginia Legislature, was described by Schneider as a “discriminatory piece of legislation.” Such bills would allow people to cite deeply held religious beliefs to not serve people whose lifestyle choices they object to.

Arguments for the bills included ministers not being forced to perform same-sex marriages since it goes against their beliefs.

Schneider said the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution handles that in preventing laws against the establishment of religion.

The issue comes in public accommodation laws where if businesses and organizations serve the public as a whole, they can’t start to choose who they serve and don’t, Schneider said.

“Any business that serves the general public, has to serve the general public,” he said.

Religious Freedom laws have been used nationwide by police officers not to patrol around Muslim mosques, he said. In the past, religious grounds were used to try and prevent biracial couples from being together and denying them access to buying homes and other services, he added.

“That just leads to chaos if we allowed everyone complete autonomy on which laws they wanted to follow and which ones they did not,” Schneider said. “That is just inviting a lawless system.”

Schneider said another Religious Freedom Bill has been introduced in the West Virginia Legislature, but he has been told by lawmakers it doesn’t have enough support to move it forward. At the same time, there is not a lot of support from the House leadership to move bills forward dealing specifically with LGBT non-discrimination measures.

He did say many lawmakers, especially Republicans, are coming to embrace non-discrimination ordinances because they either know someone who is gay or have a family member who is gay. Others have taken the stance of protecting these rights is part of what their faith teaches them about loving others.

Another argument against these protections has been the “transgender sexual predator myth” argument where people are afraid it opens the door for young girls to be assaulted by men in public bathrooms.

Schneider said, with the exception of North Carolina, there are no states with specific laws saying who can use which public restroom. Many states have laws in place dealing with sexual assault with police vigorously enforcing those laws, he said.

There are now 10 such non-discrimination ordinances in place in the state, including Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling, Thurman (which only has a population of five people), Harpers Ferry, Sutton, Lewisburg, Martinsburg, Shepherdstown and Charles Town.

Schneider did believe there would be opposition to this in Parkersburg, but he could not guess what that opposition would be like at this point and feels the time is right for Parkersburg to take that step.

“We think Parkersburg is ready to be the next one,” he said. “We can send a strong message that Parkersburg is inclusive, wants to attract business and keep its young people here.”