June 25, 2010 in City

We’re a role model at taking people as they are

By The Spokesman-Review
Have your say

John D. Trasviña, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be at Moran Prairie Library, S6004 Regal St., from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday for a listening session on housing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

To participate, RSVP at www.hud.gov/emarc. For more information, call Kristina Miller, 368-3214.

More than a decade ago, the Spokane City Council passed a human rights ordinance – including gays and lesbians among those humans with rights.

Opponents predicted a lot of pre-apocalyptic consequences. Religious freedoms constrained. City legal bills piling up. The sky falling. They managed to get an initiative on the ballot to cut out gays and lesbians from the law, which prohibits discrimination in housing, employment and transportation.

Spokane, impressively, refused.

What ensued was a grand, peaceful silence. No court clashes. No monstrous legal bills. And some progress – though to say how much would be tricky – in the arena of fairness. I suppose some people have had to gnash their teeth and rent that apartment to someone who they, God forbid, don’t approve of, but the culture clash did not materialize.

“It was the right thing to do,” said Phyllis Holmes, who was a member of the City Council when it passed the ordinance in January 1999. “All of the testimony that predicted all these dire results, obviously it didn’t change the outcome and it didn’t come to pass.”

Now the feds are coming to town to take a page out of Spokane’s book. As part of the Obama administration’s push to go after discrimination against gays and lesbians – though much too slowly for a lot of people’s taste – a top official from the Department of Housing and Urban Development will hold a “listening session” here Saturday on the issue of housing discrimination.

A cynic might note that no civil right ever got protected by a listening session. But it does seem the federal government is ready to start catching up with Spokane and the scores of other cities and states that have included sexual orientation in their discrimination laws.

“Spokane and the state of Washington and some other parts of the country are a little more advanced than the federal government,” said John D. Trasviña, the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity for HUD. “We want to make sure that the definition of family that HUD provides for access to its programs is a 21st century definition of family.”

Trasviña is going to some of the country’s major cities – plus Spokane, where he recently attended a conference on fair housing – as part of a process. It’s likely that HUD will adopt rules outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for its own programs before Congress makes changes to the Fair Housing Law, which would apply to the private housing market.

Trasviña says that as he’s traveling the country, he’s hearing that discrimination against gays and lesbians remains a reality.

“What we have learned is that lesbians and gay people basically have to hide their identity from landlords or prospective sellers in order to get that apartment they want,” he said. “That’s really not a price that any American should have to pay.”

Wouldn’t it be pretty if we could all agree on that? But let’s just have a listen to Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican (of course) from Texas (of course), who took to the House floor last October to oppose a bill that extended the federal hate-crimes law to sexual orientation.

“If you’re oriented toward animals, bestiality, then, you know, that’s not something that can be used, held against you or any bias be held against you for that. Which means you’d have to strike any laws against bestiality, if you’re oriented toward corpses, toward children, you know, there are all kinds of perversions …”

Which is almost hilarious, unless you’re oriented toward the American values of fairness, equality and minding your own damned business. Then it’s just stupid and sad.

Which brings me back to Spokane. It’s not that things are perfect here. Helen Bonser, who co-chairs the local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, recalls the decades before Spokane’s human rights ordinance, when overt discrimination was rampant.

“I do think the human rights ordinance has made a difference,” she said. “I haven’t heard as many complaints in the area of housing, transportation and employment.”

The general silence surrounding the matter isn’t, by itself, proof that it’s worked. Discrimination lives underground, in cracks and corners, and no law banishes it.

But the next time people raise an outcry about extending protections for sexual orientation – claiming, as they did in Missoula this spring, that a human rights ordinance would lead to children being raped in public bathrooms – it’s worth remembering what happened here.

It was predicted that the city would be tangled up in court challenges, spending an estimated $53,000 a year. Opponents of the law suggested it would be much more. Eleven years down the road, how much has the city spent? Half a million? More?

“I think it’s safe to say we have not spent any kind of money in relation to the human rights ordinance,” said assistant city attorney Mike Piccolo.

The sky is not falling. Maybe the federal government will find that the same thing is true, once it decides to do the right thing.

“It’s a huge waste of time,” Holmes said of the seemingly never-ending debate. “We have real issues that need to be taken up in the public discourse, this not being one of them. We need to accept people for who they are and move on.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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