Jess McCafferty of the ACLU of Idaho

Jess McCafferty of the ACLU of Idaho

As the United States has moved closer to granting equal rights to LGBTQ people over the last few years, it’s easy to assume that a traditionally red state like Idaho hasn’t shared in that nationwide momentum. But look again—six cities have adopted non-discrimination ordinances offering protections based upon sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in the last 18 months.

“It shows that Idaho isn’t as narrow-minded as people claim it is,” said Jess McCafferty, LGBT Equality Fellow for the ACLU of Idaho, a Pride Foundation grantee, noting that 21% of the state’s population now live in cities where LGBTQ residents are legally protected from discrimination. “I think it says a lot for how involved people are in their communities on LGBTQ issues.”

The six municipalities with non-discrimination ordinances started with Sandpoint in northern Idaho in December 2011, followed by Boise in December 2012, and Ketchum, Moscow, Coeur d’Alene, and Pocatello within seven months after that. All offer protections in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Idaho Falls, located in southeastern Idaho about 50 miles from Pocatello, held a first reading of its own non-discrimination ordinance on July 25, with a second reading scheduled August 8.

Jim Huggins of Moscow

Jim Huggins of Moscow

“As elected officials, we have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility to give voice to the need for these protections,” said Boise City Council president Maryanne Jordan, an outspoken proponent of Boise’s ordinance. “I think that because we in these cities have been willing to stand up, that momentum is growing. What that says about Idaho is that we value our friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.”

Jordan’s fellow Boise council member Lauren McLean, also a strong advocate of the city’s ordinance, said she’s been humbled by the love and support she’s felt from the Boise community since the ordinance’s passage.

“Through this process, I learned that relationships matter, tenacity is important, empathy is key, and justice wins,” McLean said. “I believe deeply that it’s my job as a leader committed to a just community to be bold and take risks. I learned that in this case, largely because the issue was one of justice and equality, taking what could be perceived as a risky position yielded more results than I could have imagined. Our actions empowered other leaders to take steps necessary to protect all of their residents.”

For Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall, the journey to passing his city’s ordinance was straightforward: he just knew it was the right thing to do.

“When this issue was first brought to my attention, I was very anxious to offer my support,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we lead by example and make sure everybody understands that there will be no discrimination in Ketchum when it comes to employment, housing, or public accommodations. I feel we are at a watershed moment with regard to LGBTQ support in Idaho, and I believe our community at large is now ready to address these issues and look more closely at respect and human kindness.”

Jon Downing, a Pride Foundation volunteer who grew up and still lives and works in the Coeur d’Alene area, once home to the white supremacist group Aryan Nations, said the passage of all of the ordinances is a significant accomplishment in a state like Idaho.

Jon Downing of Coeur d'Alene

Jon Downing of Coeur d’Alene

“It has huge implications about our future. History shows us that it won’t be long before there are statewide protections,” Downing said. “And I believe having our own city of Coeur d’Alene recognize equality reinforces the idea that things are a lot better than they used to be in northern Idaho. I hope our youth of today are learning from positive examples, like our city council persons, that hate won’t always be tolerated.”

Downing noted that in Coeur d’Alene, the strategy of proponents when discussing the ordinance was always to be kind and respectful, something he believes was influential in getting the council to listen, and ultimately do the right thing.

“We got commended by our council persons for always having well-thought out arguments with never a hateful word,” he said. “A positive attitude opens doors.”

For Susie Matsuura, also a Pride Foundation volunteer, keeping a positive attitude was a difficult task in Pocatello, where she was a vocal and visible supporter of that city’s several-month process to first defeating and then later passing an ordinance. At one point, the ordinance included a requirement for people to use the bathroom corresponding with the gender marker on their driver’s license, but was later removed.

“That journey was one of the longest in my life,” said Matsuura, who has a gay son. “I think you could liken it to a carnival game. You can see the goal—the item of desire, and you are trying ever so hard to toss the quarter in the dish—so that the prize is yours. This issue is a matter of fairness and dignity, coupled with love and understanding. We all want the same things in life—a fair and equal chance to succeed and be happy.”

In Moscow, the council passed the ordinance after its first reading—both stunning and delighting supporters and residents like Jim Huggins, also a Pride Foundation volunteer.

Steve Martin with Maryanne Jordan of Boise City Council

Steve Martin with Maryanne Jordan of Boise City Council

“It said that the leaders of Moscow had heard what the people wanted, they were not going to make an issue by grandstanding and prolonging the outcome, and it would be better to just get it done,” he said. “I think that the momentum that has built up in Idaho will lead to several other Idaho cities passing or enhancing their non-discrimination protections before there is enough support in the legislature to amend the Idaho Human Rights Act.”

Statewide grassroots organization Add the Words Idaho has worked for several years trying to convince the Idaho Legislature to amend the Idaho Human Rights Act to include the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” but to no avail. A glimmer of hope surfaced, though, in March when the state’s Senate and House Affairs committees, for the first time, heard a public presentation from community proponents of the amendment.

McCafferty said she believes the legislature will eventually have to take action on the amendment as more Idaho cities move forward on their own ordinances, but said it likely won’t happen until after the 2014 election season. In the meantime, she and the ACLU plan to continue to work with municipalities around the state, encouraging and educating leaders to follow the example of their counterparts who have stepped up to protect their LGBTQ residents and neighbors.

“This is about people’s lives,” she said. “It’s about letting all people participate fully in their communities.”

Steve Martin is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Idaho. Email Steve.

Posted In: Blog, Connecting Leaders, Blog, Idaho