October 22, 1997 in Nation/World

I-677 Focuses On Bias Law Would Ban Employment Discrimination Based On Sexual Orientation

Virginia De Leon Staff writer
 

David lost his job because he was gay.

A former Spokane County employee, he salvaged a failing youth program within his first six months on the job. His record was impeccable. Supervisors commended him.

But in 1985, they fired him for one reason: They said they found out he is gay.

“Why didn’t you sue?” people would ask him, not realizing there is no Washington state law prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“I was devastated,” said David, who asked that his last name not be used because his youngest son still attends school in Spokane. “I became disoriented. I couldn’t figure out what to do.”

He was homeless for 15 months. He couldn’t afford child support payments and his six children ended up on public assistance.

Others like David may never get a job in Spokane, he said, unless Initiative 677 becomes law.

If approved by voters on Nov. 4, the measure would ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. preferential treatment or employee partner benefits. Religious organizations and companies with fewer than eight employees would be exempt from the law.

State law already bans discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin and disabilities. Employers also aren’t allowed to ask about marital and family status.

This initiative would simply extend those rights to gays and lesbians, supporters say.

“Substitute African-American, Asian-American or Jewish for gay, and how does that sound?” asked Keith Wolter of Spokane, a gay man who knows what it’s like to lose a job for coming out of the closet. “This is about protecting people’s rights.”

Opponents are skeptical.

They’re against the mistreatment of gays and lesbians, said Cheryl A. Hymes of Mount Vernon, Wash., a spokeswoman for No Official Preferential Employment, a committee against the initiative.

But they’re worried about “frivolous” lawsuits, she said. They’re afraid that any job applicant who doesn’t get hired could sue for discrimination.

“You can’t set a public policy to avoid all types of discrimination,” said Bill Murphy, an engineer at Spokane’s Shamrock Paving Co., who is actively working against the measure. “We have to draw the line at some point. Sure, we can pass laws to protect redheads or bald people, but we have to draw the line.”

Marianne Hurmence just wants a job.

But no one will hire her. Many potential employers quickly assume she’s gay, she said.

They don’t call again after meeting her in person.

If they do, they tell her they’re no longer hiring.

One was honest: “I don’t want you working with the public,” he told her. “You’ll scare customers away.”

“I’m able-bodied and college-educated,” Hurmence said, her voice rising with frustration. “I’m a people person. I’ve been naive because I thought people would like me too.”

When people see Hurmence, they immediately notice her big hands and deep voice. Many label her “gay” instead of realizing she’s transsexual - a person undergoing a sex change.

Initiative 677 isn’t just a law for gays and lesbians; it would also protect heterosexuals, supporters say, as well as people like Hurmence who are incorrectly perceived as being gay or lesbian.

Hurmence knows from experience what it’s like to be demoted because of discrimination. After spending eight years working on and off for a local floor care company as a man, Hurmence started taking hormones to change into a woman. After the change, the company made her a janitor and forced her to work in the back room.

“I’m tired of being treated like a leper,” she said. “All I tell them is that I’m Marianne and I’m looking for a job. Give me a chance. See what I can do.”

Proposals similar to I-677 have been brought to the state Legislature in the past 20 years. None has passed.

Laws protecting gays and lesbians already exist in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Employees who work for the cities of Spokane, Seattle and King County are already protected from job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

If I-677 passes, Washington would be the first state to adopt this kind of law through the initiative process.

“This is an attempt to identify a category of people that has been subject to past discrimination,” said Blaine Garvin, a political science professor at Gonzaga University. “The intent is to prevent people from being harassed in the workplace. It doesn’t make them a privileged group. It’s an effort to extend protection.”

But like other affirmative action laws, it does open up the possibility that some companies will be sued, Garvin said.

Small and medium-sized businesses will be hit the hardest, said David Olson, a University of Washington political science professor who specializes in minorities in politics.

This costs time and money, Murphy said, resources that some companies don’t have.

“Just about anything will bring a lawsuit,” he said. “It’s inexpensive for the plaintiff but expensive for business because they have to spend money on attorneys. … It’s like a minefield - all these laws. It’s costing us more money to dodge them.”

The state of Wisconsin has documented 843 complaints of job discrimination based on sexual orientation since it passed a law similar to I-677 in 1982. Rhode Island, which extended employment protection to gays and lesbians in 1995, has received only 14 complaints.

Many companies have already included sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies, said Suzanne Thomas, an employment lawyer and sponsor of I-677.

Some of these companies include Fred Meyer, Nordstrom and Price/Costco.

“Why would companies like Microsoft and Toys R Us voluntarily adopt these policies if they thought it was going to be a problem for their business?” she said.

Money’s also on the initiative’s side. As of Oct. 14, supporters of I-677 have donated more than $550,000 to the campaign. No Official Preferential Employment (NOPE), on the other hand, has raised about $52,000.

Beneath the business concerns raised by the opponents of I-677 is a belief that homosexuality is morally wrong.

“(The law) is not necessary,” said Bishop Walton Mize of Spokane’s Lighthouse Tabernacle Church. “It’s not politically correct to harass anybody, especially gays. Homosexuals aren’t economically or socially deprived.”

Sexual orientation, he said, shouldn’t be equated to issues concerning race and gender.

“(Homosexuality) is a choice, a learned response,” he said. “I’m resentful because (I-677 supporters) are riding on the coattails of the civil rights movement.”

But the initiative isn’t a debate about homosexuality, said Wolter, who now works for a company that allows him to be openly gay.

It’s about equal rights and fighting discrimination, he said.

“This isn’t about special rights,” said Rebecca Isaacs, political director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “It’s about equal rights. The right not to be fired from a job.”

The initiative would also improve office productivity, many supporters say. No longer would gays and lesbians have to live double lives, David said. They could put photos of their loved ones on their desks and talk about their partners without using nondescriptive pronouns.

“Being constantly on guard takes a lot of energy - energy you need for work,” said David, now a diversity-training consultant in Centralia, Wash. “It affects your self-esteem and sense of integrity.”

Still, opponents are afraid that if the initiative passes, they could be sued for “their personal beliefs about sexual behaviors” if it causes other employees “emotional distress,” said Hymes, a retired state legislator.

“We shouldn’t be a liability at work because of our private opinions or convictions,” she said. “It’s time somebody stands up and says not all differences in opinion are discrimination.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo Graphic: Voters split on Initiative 677

MEMO: For a summary and the full text of Initiative 677, log on to The Spokesman-Review’s Web site, Virtually Northwest, at www.virtuallynw.com, and click on “Election Central.”

This sidebar appeared with the story: Initiative 677 wouldn’t require hiring quotas, Initiative 677 would: Guarantee the same employment rights for Washington residents, regardless of sexual orientation. Prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor organizations from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation when hiring, firing or promoting employees. (The measure exempts businesses with fewer than eight employees, as well as nonprofit religious organizations.) The initiative contains language stating it would not require employee partner benefits, establish quotas or require preferential treatment based on sexual orientation.

For a summary and the full text of Initiative 677, log on to The Spokesman-Review’s Web site, Virtually Northwest, at www.virtuallynw.com, and click on “Election Central.”

This sidebar appeared with the story: Initiative 677 wouldn’t require hiring quotas, Initiative 677 would: Guarantee the same employment rights for Washington residents, regardless of sexual orientation. Prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor organizations from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation when hiring, firing or promoting employees. (The measure exempts businesses with fewer than eight employees, as well as nonprofit religious organizations.) The initiative contains language stating it would not require employee partner benefits, establish quotas or require preferential treatment based on sexual orientation.


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