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Women's Summit compares equality across states

Posted: March 16, 2012 - 12:14am

A lot of progress has been made in the field of human rights over the course of the last 20 years, but equality has not yet been achieved for many groups. Will we know equality in the next 20 years?

As the Alliance for Reproductive Justice celebrates its 20th anniversary at the sixth annual Women’s Summit, which began Thursday and continues today, a major topic of discussion is equality — what has been gained and what remains. ARJ invited Montana state Sen. Christine Kaufmann and Montana Human Rights Network organizer and legislative advocate Jamee Greer to contribute to the dialog.

During a luncheon yesterday, Kaufmann spoke to similarities between sparsely populated and outdoorsy states and the ongoing process of achieving equality and even maintaining rights.

Greer spoke at the Women’s Summit reception at the Hangar on the Wharf’s ballroom Thursday night and had some stories to share about human rights and equality, as well as some insight on campaigns popping up in cities across the company for anti-discrimination ordinances.

Kaufmann spent 18 years working for the Human Rights Network, including eight years as director during her time as an elected official in Montana. Greer has been with the network since 2010, working to pass an ordinance in Missoula, Mont.

“The Human Rights Network actually has a very broad definition of what human rights are. We started out fighting white supremacy, trying to give our communities the tools they need when they heard white supremacist kinds of dialog in their community. But we also have projects on health care as a human right and obviously gay and lesbian civil rights was a part of that.” Kaufmann said.

“All we’re trying to do is make sure our laws in Helena match our values, that everyone is treated with respect and dignity,” said Greer.

Kaufmann spent time recounting legislation in Montana in the last 20 years, some that could infringe upon human rights, which didn’t pass, some that could improve human rights, which also didn’t pass.

There is a law on the books in Montana that makes being gay or lesbian a felony, punishable by 10 years in prison.

“I, instead of going to the Legislature for the last 10 years, I could have been in prison for the last 10 years — and I like to remind my colleagues of that occasionally.” She said.

“Our first equality efforts were to try to repeal that law...” Kaufmann said, “that effort continues even to this day.”

The law was declared unconstitutional by the Montana Supreme Court in 1996 and is unenforceable, but the law, still on the books, stands as a monument to bigotry, Kaufmann said.

In 1995, there was a bill that included an amendment that would require gays and lesbians who were convicted under that particular law to register as sex offenders. There was an uproar and the story went national, with Connie Chung notably asking Montana’s governor at the time about visiting the state to do a story on the “state of hate.”

After the publicity surrounding the bill, 49 of 50 state senators voted to remove the amendment.

“That’s one victory,” said Kaufmann, “it’s a victory to keep things the way they were. It’s kind of tiring sometimes when all your victories are about maintaining the status quo, when the status quo isn’t good enough.”

Relating human rights struggles to similar issues in Alaska, Kaufmann brought up the One Anchorage campaign in support of Proposition 5. According to the One Anchorage website, Prop. 5 is an initiative that provides gay and transgender Alaskans the same legal protections afforded to other citizens, pertaining to employment, financial practices, housing and other areas.

A similar anti-discrimination bill has been put before the Montana Legislature 10 times, Kaufmann said, failing each time and eliciting responses from the opposition that caused some grimaces and some chuckles from the Women’s Summit attendees.

Kaufmann made a point that one faces a real risk of losing one’s job for being gay or transgender when those protections are not afforded, and that many live in fear and keep their relationships secret.

One example Greer shared was a couple with one partner in a workplace with anti-discrimination policies, while the other didn’t have that same protection. While the partner in the protected environment could do things many people do, like have a photo of his boyfriend on his desk or invite his partner to a company barbecue, the other partner has no way of knowing if sharing this part of his life might introduce him to a hostile environment.

“There’s a climate of fear about not having this policy, and that’s what we hope to change.” Greer said.

Facing difficulty getting legislation passed at the state level, Kaufmann cited cities like Missoula and Omaha, Neb., just two of around 150, passing anti-discrimination ordinances and said, “We’re just going to embarrass the state Legislature, you know, into making it a statewide issue — it really is a statewide issue — your citizens should not feel protected in one community, but not in the next community.”

Greer, who campaigned in Missoula and is now campaigning in Helena for a city ordinance, said many residents of these cities actually are supportive of equal rights and protections, but many are unaware the protections don’t already exist or that they are necessary. Kaufmann said many misunderstand and assume these protections are more than what another citizen has.

“More often than not,” said Greer, “People ask, “Is it necessary?” because they believe that gays, lesbians and transgendered people are protected when they are not.”

A lot of what Greer does, and what he sees as necessary in other communities, is simply education. In Helena, the capital of Montana and similar in population size to Juneau, 50 local businesses and 16 faith leaders have signed a statement of support, he said.

Greer and Kaufmann both mentioned the numerous human rights bills that had failed in the Legislature, though both were optimistic about continually bringing these human rights issues before the Legislature.

“We simply redefine winning, instead of winning the vote, we’re winning a few more hearts and minds.” Kaufmann said.

And in many cities around the nation, there are real, tangible wins. As in Missoula and Omaha, Greer said, Flint, Mich. became the 18th Michigan city to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance last week. Greer pointed out it’s nothing groundbreaking. Minneapolis passed an antidiscrimination ordinance in 1975.

“I say around 150, just like a few years ago I said around 135 because cities are passing these so quickly, it might be 152 right now,” Greer said.

Both Kaufmann and Greer sounded confident that Prop 5 will pass in Anchorage and that other cities might pass a similar ordinance expanding human rights protection.

“Really, nobody has the power to give (human rights) out, they are God-given if you will, they are inherently attached to us as human beings.” Kaufmann said. She and Greer and others in support of these ordinances and wider legislation simply hope to protect those rights.

• Contact reporter Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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