Wichita city officials and residents have debated a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting LGBTQ people. (Liz Hamor)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Liz Hamor runs a leadership consulting business, Center of Daring.
Most Kansans agree that discrimination is wrong and goes against their values. However, a proposed LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in Wichita is challenging those values.
After the ordinance was introduced in June, the Wichita City Council and community experienced a couple of heated debates before the council deferred the “second read” and its subsequent vote for 90 days. October 12, the Wichita City Council will once again discuss whether a local nondiscrimination ordinance will protect marginalized Wichitans from discrimination.
The dispute centers on the inclusion of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected classes. Much of the pushback is for obvious reasons — people want to be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ folks, mostly based on their religious beliefs. However, there are those who simply do not understand why LGBTQ-inclusive municipal nondiscrimination ordinances are needed. Of course, there are others who get entirely too uncomfortable with being asked to have a public opinion on whether or not LGBTQ people deserve to feel safe and respected in their communities, because for them, LGBTQ topics are taboo (and thus seen as divisive). These people become frustrated with being forced to leave their comfort zone and just want to see the whole thing go away.
As an LGBTQ advocate and leadership coach with experience in advocacy, policy and empowering folks to engage even when the work is uncomfortable, it’s often my job to provide education, resources, and support to the community. Over the last three months, I find myself repeatedly answering some of the same questions and having the same conversations relating to the need for local nondiscrimination ordinances, especially when it comes to the protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Here are my answers to these frequently asked questions.
Question: Why are LGBTQ-inclusive municipal nondiscrimination ordinances needed?
Answer: A policy can provide recourse if discrimination happens, but it also powerfully makes the statement, “Our city values you. You belong here.”
As an LGBTQ advocate, I cannot stress enough how important that can be when we’re often still living and dealing with “don’t ask, don’t tell” cultures that are anything but inclusive or affirming. Even worse, LGBTQ Kansans regularly experience outright hostility. To know that your city has your back and believes you belong, deserving respect and protection, is a strong act of solidarity in a world that bombards you with opposite messages.
LGBTQ-inclusive policies set the tone for how a community will treat people and who is welcome. Many LGBTQ people will seek out cities that have robust LGBTQ-inclusive policies to choose to live, to go to school, to work, and to raise a family. Similarly, many young LGBTQ people will leave their home cities that don’t have these policies. This can mean cities like Wichita miss out on attracting and retaining talented professionals.
Question: Aren’t LGBTQ people protected from discrimination at the federal and state levels?
Answer: The proposed nondiscrimination ordinance, like most NDOs, covers three areas: employment, housing, and public accommodations. There are no protections for sexual orientation or gender identity in anti-discrimination laws at the Kansas state or federal level. However, both our state and federal administrations use the recent Supreme Court ruling on Bostock v. Clayton County to extend Title VII protections to sexual orientation and gender identity.
While Title VII itself relates only to employment discrimination, the Kansas Human Rights Commission interprets the Supreme Court ruling on Bostock to also cover housing and public accommodations. Back at the federal level, to fill the gap to prevent discrimination in housing, President Joe Biden instated an Executive Order that extended the definition of “sex” in a few anti-discrimination laws to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” and the Fair Housing Act was one of those his order addresses.
While coverage for LGBTQ folks at the state and federal level currently exist, this coverage could be temporary. Executive orders can be undone by future administrations and the way that both state and federal administrations interpret Title VII can change with new administrations.
All of this means that whether LGBTQ individuals are protected from discrimination could depend on state and federal administrations unless local city ordinances codify the protections for LGBTQ people in their cities.
Question: Do cities even have the authority to make an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance?
Answer: Yes! Kansas is what is known as a “Home Rule” state because of a 1961 amendment to our state constitution. Article 12 § 5 (b) of the Kansas Constitution begins, “Cities are hereby empowered to determine their local affairs and government.” Essentially, our state constitution grants cities and counties the ability to pass laws to govern themselves as they deem appropriate. The caveat is that these laws cannot conflict with any state or federal laws. They can be stronger or broader than the state and federal level, but never weaker. That means they can’t offer less protection.
Question: This is such a divisive topic. How can I be an ally or advocate for these policies without offending people?
Answer: Ah, Kansas, where we’ve internalized the concept of Midwest Polite to a fault, believing that to have an opinion or to speak out on a polarized topic is considered rude. The short answer is, “You can’t avoid offending people if you’re truly doing allyship.”
When I hear people saying something is divisive, 99% of the time they could replace the word “divisive” with “unpalatable to people who hold the power or believe they should hold the power” and it would often be more accurate. Marginalized people are always being blamed for being divisive. “Black people demanding to have their lives valued is divisive” is the same as “Black people demanding to have their lives valued is unpalatable to people who hold the power.”
“LGBTQ people asking for nondiscrimination protections is divisive” is the same as “LGBTQ people asking for nondiscrimination protections is unpalatable to people who believe they should hold the power.”
Lessons from MLK
During the debates around the Wichita nondiscrimination ordinance, Vice Mayor Brandon Johnson said: “Whenever we seek to stop discrimination, empower civil rights for those who have been oppressed or impacted, there is division. When those who have the privilege of not worrying about it … now begin to have to think about what it means to treat someone else with the same dignity and respect that they expect, there is division.” To be an advocate or ally, you must choose courage. You must speak up. Yes, some people may choose to be alienated or offended, but that’s about them, not about you. I have a plaque in my kitchen that says, “You’re not pizza, you can’t make everyone happy.” – Liz Hamor
To be an advocate or ally, you must choose courage. You must speak up. Yes, some people may choose to be alienated or offended, but that’s about them, not about you. I have a plaque in my kitchen that says, “You’re not pizza, you can’t make everyone happy.”
– Liz Hamor
Then Johnson encouraged folks to read Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, particularly the piece about how long MLK had waited for justice as cities asked him to wait longer and not to come to their communities. In this letter, King also wrote about status quo and how the white moderate preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Essentially, he was describing Midwest Polite. If you want to do allyship, you have to understand that tension, even division, are often required.
Author and shame researcher Brené Brown says, “You can choose courage or you can choose comfort, but you can’t have both.”
To be an advocate or ally, you must choose courage. You must speak up. Yes, some people may choose to be alienated or offended, but that’s about them, not about you. I have a plaque in my kitchen that says, “You’re not pizza, you can’t make everyone happy.” I’ve also learned through experience that it’s easier to live with not being everyone’s cup of tea than it is to live with disappointing myself by compromising my values of equity and justice.
Once you’re ready to get uncomfortable, whether you’re an elected official or not, you can champion these policies in your own cities. You can seek out resources and guidance from organizations like Equality Kansas that have been championing LGBTQ-inclusive policies in Kansas for more than 15 years. You can follow their lead to champion safety and inclusion in your community.
LGBTQ people have waited a long time for inclusion and justice. You can help us not have to wait longer.
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