It’s official: On Tuesday afternoon, the Wyoming House lost its flippin’ mind.
At least the 33 members who voted to kill an anti-discrimination bill to protect workers who are gay, lesbian and transgendered did. Of course, a fair share of them lost their minds years ago.
Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) said people believe the bill adds “another special layer of legal protection for a perceived and protected condition beyond that afforded other citizens.”
“Condition”? Does she think being gay is a disease?
“I would urge you to remember that the primary role of government is to protect people’s rights, not to legislate special rights,” Halverson told her House colleagues. A majority bought the argument, because an hour and a half later following a debate dominated by those who opposed Senate File 115, they killed it on a 26-33 vote.
Fortunately, that vote was recorded for posterity. At some point in the future it will be considered unbelievable that lawmakers voted against a bill to protect the LGBT population from being discriminated against. But the voting record will be there in black and white, just like it was for those who fought integration, interracial marriage and the voting rights of blacks.
A shameful legacy continued Tuesday by lawmakers who have always seen “special rights” where the rest of us see equal rights, but it’s their legacy. They own it.
For the rest of us, there’s never been a clearer clarion call to action than the one sounded after the House turned its back on thousands of people in Wyoming who can still be discriminated against at work simply because they were born gay.
The first thing that happened Tuesday was a huge compromise offered by SF 115 supporters. Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo) stripped out everything in SF 115 that didn’t pertain to gays’ rights in the workplace.
Madden maintained that’s all people who emailed him wrote about, while opponents raised a lot of issues but not that one. His amendment passed overwhelmingly on a voice vote.
That wasn’t nearly enough to persuade a majority to approve the bill. No, they wouldn’t accept anything but the bloody carcass of SF 115. The audience learned from speaker after speaker they couldn’t protect people from being fired because their sexual orientation offended the legislators’ religious and moral sensibilities.
“If we don’t start out here with something we can agree [on], I fear we’re going to walk out of here with nothing,” Madden implored.
Madden had a reason to be afraid, because nothing is precisely what SF 115 supporters received.
Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell), chairman of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee that approved the bill 6-2, walked to the podium and said “Wow.” She enthusiastically endorsed Madden’s changes, which were approved overwhelmingly on a voice vote.
Some of the most vociferous opponents obviously still hated the bill, but they voted for the amendment so they could get their moment in the spotlight to show how disgusted they were about the very existence of such a bill.
Here are some of the arguments opponents used:
— We’re a friendly bunch. “Wyoming is known for its friendliness,” Halverson declared. “We’ve been consistently rated the top most business-friendly state in the nation.”
— Gays just made the wrong decision. “This will be the first time in all the employment non-discrimination acts that it will be a choice,” said Rep. Roy Edwards (R-Gillette). “It’s how they decided to be — gay or lesbian or if its transgendered or however you want to say it.”
— Protecting the rights of gays is screwing up everyone else’s rights. “Passage will assure that no individual business, institution or organization or faith community will escape a whirlwind of personal, economic and financial upheaval that may result from these actions,” said freshman Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle). “At risk are the rights we say we’re trying to protect — our free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion and freedom to protect ourselves.”
— We did it for the children. “Human history has created a space and time where we’ve had the opportunity to live according to the rights of a free conscience,” said Rep. Matt Winters (R-Thermopolis). “It is time to see freedom’s torch lit anew. … We desire that dream to persevere for our children. We can stand today and say we stood for them.”
There were many nutty stories that didn’t make any sense considering the context of the bill. Edwards said he once had a business and he hired a guy who dressed nice for the interview but came to work the next day wearing a T-shirt with naked girls, and he showed his tattoos. So?
Halverson said she was asked what would happen if a girls’ soccer coach had a big, strapping boy who thought he was a girl who wanted to play. Exactly how does this relate to on-the-job discrimination?
Winters, a Baptist pastor, began his remarks by saying, “I sincerely love every one of you. I believe every one of you are created in the image of God. You have a human dignity that is worthy of respect.”
Why can’t he spread a little love around for LGBT people, who must also have been created in the image of God (he didn’t just make legislators, did he?) and protect them from being fired for their sexual orientation?
Here’s something that’s really twisted: Halverson cited a poll that showed 96 percent of people in Wyoming think an employee’s work should be based on experience, ability and performance, not their sexual orientation or gender identity.
To Halverson, that means everything is hunky-dory, because we agree gays shouldn’t be discriminated against. What it really means, though, is that you should have passed the law guaranteeing employers can’t legally discriminate against their LGBT workers.
Halverson also said the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services has only had 40 complaints alleging discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity in the past four years. She said the numbers were so small, it was just anecdotal — “And we’ve learned not to pass laws based on anecdotes.”
But Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R-Jackson) said that many complaints in a four-year span is not “anecdotal.” Besides, she added, “We certainly don’t take away our protections for people of color because we haven’t heard many complaints over the past few years.”
House Speaker Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) led the charge for the bill’s supporters. For starters, he said he doesn’t believe one’s sexual orientation is a choice.
“I would argue with you to the death on that,” he said. “I have a little personal experience to back that up. Some people are hard-wired differently. I don’t know why, but they’re here, they’re among us, they are our friends.”
He reminded the religious zealots on the House floor that “God didn’t put us here to denigrate each other. What we’re talking about here is equality, grace and dignity, and how we treat other.”
The speaker seemed tired of all the religious arguments other lawmakers used in speaking against the bill. Or perhaps listening to all of the hypocrisy wore him down. “For religion to be an impediment [to equality] just floors me,” he said. “For a thousand years, religious people have been persecuted. … It seems as soon as religion attains a level of parity, it has to strike out and inflict the same things on others that were inflicted on it.”
What it comes down to, Brown said, is if a gay person can do the work they were hired to do.
“If they can do the job, what possible justification could there be to say, ‘You know, I’m going to let you go because you have certain characteristics that I don’t approve of,'” he said.
The speaker concluded by asking the 59 other lawmakers of which he is leader to do what they say in Australia — give gays, lesbians and transgendered people “a fair go.”
The Wyoming Legislature’s cadre of right-wing extremists don’t have a clue about what a fair go is, unless it’s about giving themselves a break.
So far this session they’ve rejected Medicaid and killed proposed minimum wage increases, so they’ve shown their disdain for the working poor. Now they’ve said no to providing workplace protection for gays and lesbians, which means for homophobic employers who want to discriminate, it’s open season.
And they have the nerve to call this a “people’s Legislature.” It would be funny if what they did today wasn’t so unjust, and if their petty politics weren’t so damn pathetic.