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Sunday, May 4, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Risk Vs. Rights: -- The Debate On I-677 -- Ballot Measure A Misstep That Jeopardizes Gay Gains

Special To The Times

HANDS Off Washington (HOW), a gay political organization, is gathering signatures to place an initiative on the ballot this November. If passed, Initiative 677 would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Washington state.

HOW must gather 225,000 signatures by July 3, then mount a campaign to convince Washington voters to protect the employment rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered citizens. HOW estimates they will need to raise and spend $2 million by Nov. 4.

There are a host of problems with Initiative 677: HOW has misrepresented their polling data to the gay community; I-677 is making it likelier a Republican-backed anti-gay-marriage referendum will appear on the ballot this fall, and there are doubts that HOW will be able to gather the signatures they need.

But the biggest problem for I-677 is this question: Is employment discrimination against gays and lesbians a large enough problem to justify Initiative 677?

Political acts have symbolic weight. The symbolic weight of an act has to be in proportion to the problem it addresses; if it isn't, it discredits whatever demand is being made. Waging a $2 million initiative battle to address the problem of anti-gay employment discrimination in Washington is a disproportionate response, one that risks discrediting other gay and lesbian demands - for marriage rights, for hate-crime protections, for gay youth programs.

Forty-two percent of Washington citizens already live in cities and counties where the rights of gays and lesbians are protected: Seattle, Olympia, Pullman, Tumwater, Vancouver; King, Clark, Clallam and Thurston counties. (Bellingham and Spokane do not discriminate in city hiring, and Spokane does not grant city contracts to businesses that discriminate.) But it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay - or straight, for that matter - in Yakima, Tacoma, Edmonds, and other cities and counties across the state.

For HOW to put the rights of Washington state's sexual minorities up to a vote - a move HOW claimed to oppose on principle when fighting off a handful of anti-gay initiatives two years ago - employment discrimination must be an enormous problem in parts of Washington. So how many incidents of anti-gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered employment discrimination were there in Washington in 1996?

HOW doesn't know.

"I think it's a fairly substantial problem," said Jan Bianchi, HOW's executive director. But she admits, "no one keeps statistics on this (statewide), so it's hard to know for sure." That's why HOW set out two months ago to, "document specific cases, so we can have a file, so we can say this is not a product of our imaginations." Bianchi claims HOW has "about 30 or so" cases on file, but Bianchi couldn't say how many are from areas where gay and lesbian employment discrimination is already illegal, and HOW is not ready to release them.

Anti-gay employment discrimination does exist: State Rep. Ed Murray, Washington's only openly gay state legislator, frequently gets calls from gays and lesbians who've been discriminated against. The need for gay and lesbian civil-rights protections is real, Murray believes, and he supports HOW's initiative. When he takes a call from a gay person who has lost a job, or an apartment (which he says is more common), Murray asks the caller to testify in Olympia, talk to reporters and get in touch with HOW.

"But the people who call don't want to pursue it any further, because they're not out to their parents, or (they're) in the closet somewhere in their lives," Murray said. "That so many of the people discriminated against can't come forward makes it very hard to make the case that we're discriminated against."

The closet is the Catch 22 of gay rights: Closeted men and women are often the victims of discrimination, but won't offer their stories to the organizations fighting for anti-discrimination legislation, since to do so would require them to come out of the closet. Ironically, even when the laws are passed, the men and women most in need of protection are ultimately not helped: You can't sue your employer from inside the closet. If you make a complaint, your name will wind up in the paper, where your parents or friends might see it. Nothing in HOW's initiative protects a closeted gay man from his mother's disapproval.

HOW's Bianchi argues that the passage of I-677 will enable more people to come out. "People are not able to come out now because they're afraid of losing their jobs," Bianchi said, "Having protection will make it possible for them to lead a more normal life. . . . they will feel better about coming out to their families and friends."

If HOW's most compelling argument for the passage of this initiative is that it will make closeted gays and lesbians feel better about being gay - politics as therapy - then HOW, and the gay community, is in trouble. While that argument might convince the mental-health professionals who serve our community, it is unlikely to appeal to a majority of Washington voters - or small town newspaper editorial boards.

They're going to want to see hard evidence that the need for this law is pressing, real and immediate, and are unlikely to accept subtle arguments about the emotional dynamics of the gay experience in lieu of that evidence. Absent hard proof, voters will punish HOW - and Washington state's gay community - for picking what the right will spin as an unnecessary, expensive, divisive, potentially violent fight over a non-issue.

Furthermore, the gay community advancing a pro-gay-rights initiative so soon after the Supreme Court struck down an anti-gay-rights initiative passed by the citizens of Colorado, will surely be spun as just another example of gays demanding and receiving "special" treatment. Voters will perceive that gay-rights supporters are free to run gay-rights initiatives, while those who oppose gay rights cannot run initiatives of their own.

In the early '70s, gay groups looked to laws passed during the African-American Civil Rights Movement, borrowing that movement's legislative goals, rhetoric and urgency. After all, out gays and lesbians in the late '60s and early '70s (when most of HOW's leadership came of age) faced similar trials: We, too, were routinely discriminated against in employment, housing and public accommodation; gay men and lesbians could be murdered with impunity in many parts of the country; same-sex couples who danced together in San Francisco were regularly arrested; and bars that served us in New York City were shut down.

Fast forward 25 years. Discrimination still exists: sodomy laws remain on the books; "don't ask, don't tell" made things worse; homophobic judges take our kids from us; and the most stable gay relationship is denied the legal protections a drunken Vegas wedding secures a straight couple of two days acquaintance. But openly gay U.S. congressmen are routinely re-elected. Lesbians crowd our television screens and city councils. More and more companies, large and small, offer benefits to the partners of their gay and lesbian employees. Lesbian parents are on the cover of Newsweek. Ru-Paul, Barney Frank, k.d. lang, David Geffen, Tony Kushner, Melissa Ethridge, Gus Van Sant, Ellen DeGeneres, David Sedaris, Andrew Sullivan - gay and lesbian entertainers, writers and artists dominate American culture. We're the flavor of the month, but our month never seems to end.

Yet, gay and lesbian political organizations continue to demand civil-rights protections with the same urgency, even the same rhetoric, employed when gays and lesbians first began demanding our rights - as if nothing had changed in the intervening quarter of a century. We're told that employment discrimination is widespread: according to a HOW flyer, gays and lesbians "live in daily fear of losing their jobs." That anti-gay employment discrimination continues to be an enormous problem has become an article of faith: The Seattle Gay News went so far as to print an "Initiative 677 Catechism." Where there are catechisms, there is dogma, but the dogma of gay rights no longer reflects the reality of gay lives.

The time has come to admit the obvious to ourselves and to straight America: We've come a long way. The evidence of anti-gay discrimination might be harder to come by not just because of the closet, but because this type of discrimination is much less common today than it was 25 years ago. There has to be a way to press for our rights, while acknowledging how much progress we've made. Initiative 677 is not the way. Waging a enormously expensive, ill-advised battle to address a problem that isn't itself enormous will backfire.

Anti-gay employment discrimination should be illegal - if one person lost her job in Washington last year for being a lesbian, that's one person too many. Nine states and hundreds of cities and counties all across the country have passed laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. Even in places like Washington, where a statewide law has not been passed, the fight to pass one has shifted public opinion: most Washington residents believe this kind of discrimination is already illegal. The gay community has won the argument, even when we haven't managed to pass the legislation.

HOW's leadership has admitted that the frustration of watching gay-rights legislation stall in Olympia for 20 years drove their decision to go ahead with Initiative 677. An emotional, not a rational, decision was made, without consideration being given to all the implications of Initiative 677. Gay-rights laws should be passed, but the gay community should continue to do the hard work of passing them through the Legislature. If the gay community invested $2 million identifying and helping candidates in the state, Republicans and Democrats, who supported gay rights, we could pass a bill that included protections not just for employment, but also for credit, public accommodation and housing. A recent article in The Seattle Times examined the tobacco's industry's clout in Olympia, which tobacco gained by making campaign contributions totaling $150,000. If $150,000 buys tremendous clout, what would be possible for the gay community if we invested $2 million in Olympia. Initative 677 does not offer value for money.

Initiative 677 and HOW's rhetoric are out of step with how gay lives are perceived - by gays and straights alike. With any luck, HOW will fail to gather the signatures they need to place I-677 on the ballot, a scenario that's preferable to one possbile alternative: HOW gets I-677 on the ballot, and it is rejected by the voters. The rights of a minority being voted down by a majority of state residents will set a staggeringly dangerous precedent, not just endangering the rights of gays and lesbians, but all minorities living in Washington. With so much to loose and so little to gain, 677 doesn't make sense. Don't sign.

Dan Savage is the associate editor of - and writes a column for - The Stranger, a weekly newspaper in Seattle.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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