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Thursday, September 18, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pro/Con -- Weighing In On Initiative 677

Special To The Times

INITIATIVE 677, which will be on the ballot statewide on Nov. 3, will make it illegal to discriminate in employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

PRO:

"SO, are you going to vote for it?"

My friend Kaley is asking me about Hands Off Washington's "pro-gay rights initiative." If passed this November, Initiative 677 will make it illegal to discriminate in employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Washington state. When I-677 was in the signature-gathering phase, I wrote an op-ed for The Seattle Times encouraging people not to sign.

While anti-gay employment discrimination ought to be illegal, I felt the problem was simply not large enough to justify the expense of an initiative campaign - or the hypocrisy.

When Christian conservatives attempted to place anti-gay rights initiatives on the ballot, HOW sued. Anti-gay initiatives 608/610 were "patently unconstitutional," HOW argued, not because they were anti-gay, but because they would force a popular vote on a minority group's "fundamental" civil rights (which freedom from employment discrimination is, according to HOW). This was, "beyond the scope of the initiative process." HOW quoted a 1943 Supreme Court decision in their lawsuit: "The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to . . . place (certain subjects) beyond the reach of majorities . . . fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections." The emphasis was HOW's.

I opposed I-677 for some of the same reasons HOW claimed to oppose the anti-gay rights initiatives: Fundamental civil rights should not be put to a vote. When my piece appeared in The Seattle Times, the question was whether I-677 should be on the ballot. I "voted" no by not signing.

But now that I-677 is on the ballot, the question has changed: Now the question is whether it should be illegal to discriminate in employment against people on the basis of their sexual orientation (gay, lesbian, bi, straight), or gender "self image" (transgendered, drag queen, cross dresser).

The answer to the new question is yes, so I am voting yes on I-677. Not that I have much of a choice: The consequences of I-677 going down to defeat are too serious to sit out the vote on principle. If I-677 fails, a majority of Washington state residents will have said they don't believe gays have a right to a job. Politicians will be unlikely to vote yes on other gay-rights issues, from same-sex marriage to services for gay youth, not after the people have spoken.

The battle over I-677 is just beginning in earnest. Distortions are already flying: Homosexuality is a behavior, according to NOPE, and behaviors do not merit civil-rights protections. It is, however, currently illegal to fire someone for going to church, or reading the bible, or otherwise engaging in Christian "behavior" in Washington state (or Satanist behavior for that matter). Perhaps NOPE's opposition to civil-rights protections for behaviors is a "seamless garment," and NOPE supports stripping people of faith of their civil-rights protections. But somehow I doubt it.

The distortions won't all come from the anti-677 side. The vast majority of gays and lesbians living in Washington state do not live in "daily fear of losing (our) jobs," as HOW would have us believe. During the signature-gathering phase of the campaign, HOW Executive Director Jan Bianchi repeatedly stated that anti-gay employment discrimination is an "enormous" problem. But responding to NOPE's charge that I-677's passage would result in an avalanche of lawsuits, Bianchi reassured voters that HOW had uncovered only 60 cases of anti-gay employment discrimination in Washington state, some as many as 20 years old - hardly an avalanche in the making.

Like the anti-gay-rights initiatives before it, I-677 is an abuse of the initiative process and a distortion of civil-rights law. Civil-rights legislation is not supposed to be a popularity contest. Historically, civil-rights laws were passed to protect minority groups that could not win popularity contests, hence the need for the law in the first place. More ominously, rights won in popularity contests can be lost in popularity contests. If I-677 passes, and conservatives seek to overturn or amend I-677 with an initiative of their own - to, say, exclude school teachers from job protections - what will HOW argue then?

Probably something along these lines: Voting on civil rights is an unconstitutional abuse of the initiative process - except when we say it's not; just like anti-gay employment discrimination is a huge problem - except when we say it's not.

So I-677 is unnecessary, hypocritical, and, like initiatives 608 and 610, has no place on the ballot. But it is on the ballot, and so I'm voting for it. And I hope you will too.

Dan Savage is a columnist for The Stranger.

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

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