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Down to the wire for a non-discrimination ordinance in Idaho

“It’s so vivid to me,” Susan Matsuura says, “I can get bogged down in details on the history of this ordinance to this day. Just so vivid.”

The mother of a gay son, Matsuura lives in Pocatello, one of seven Idaho cities with non-discrimination ordinances for LGBT people. Pocatello, however, is the only city to face a referendum to overturn its ordinance’s protections. “We’re the lucky ones I guess,” Matsuura says.

This Tuesday, Pocatello voters will vote “yes” to repeal the ordinance or “no” to keep the LGBT protections in place.

It is currently legal to discriminate against LGBT people in 29 states and transgender people in 33 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Yet with little hope that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) will come up for a vote in the Republican-controlled House, more localities are debating their own non-discrimination legislation, to provide legal protections to LGBT people .

For years Idaho Democrats have tried to add sexual orientation and gender identity to their state’s Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination in employment, education, real estate dealings, and public accommodations based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Republican-controlled legislature has successfully thwarted those efforts, leaving LGBT non-discrimination measures up to local municipalities. In response, seven cities — Boise, Coeur d’Alene, Ketchum, Moscow, Sandpoint, Idaho Falls and Pocatello – passed non-discrimination ordinances for LGBT people during the last three years.

Pocatello’s non-discrimination ordinance, which extends protections to LGBT people in employment and housing, was particularly hard won. Few of its advocates in the town of 54,000 thought they’d have to fight a second battle just to keep the law.

As the former chair of Pocatello’s Human Relations Advisory Committee, Matsuura says the idea for a non-discrimination ordinance originated in 2012. “The Idaho legislature won’t have a hearing, there are no state protections and Sandpoint, another town of two-to-four thousand people, passed an ordinance. Why couldn’t we?”

Matsuura and the committee called the other Idaho towns that had passed similar laws, compiling her research in a report for the mayor. “We buried him in information,” she says.

Among their findings: reports by a pastor of an “agitated” landlord who let himself into a 22-year-old woman’s apartment late one night to ask her if she was a lesbian. Before she could answer, the report says he demanded she leave within 24 hours or he would throw her out. The summary also mentioned a young man whose boss called him a “f---ing fag” before firing him and threatening he leave before he “kicked his ass.”

City council members decided to move forward with debate on the non-discrimination ordinance.  When it came up for a public hearing in April 2013, residents packed into the council chambers for a marathon session that lasted over four hours. According to city records, at leas 50 people spoke in support of the measure. Fifteen opposed. A mother told a story of adults following her transgender child around a store, repeatedly calling the child “faggot.” A grandmother, Gloria Mayer, made a personal revelation: “I am 63 years old ... and I'm gay. That is the first time I have said that publicly.”

"I am 63 years old ... and I'm gay. That is the first time I have said that publicly."'

Yet when the ordinance came up for a vote later that month, the city council was split. The mayor cast a tie-breaking vote, and the ordinance went down in defeat. A few provisions were changed, and the measure was brought up for a second vote in June. After more than six hours of debate, it passed with a 4-2 vote.

“We had a fantastic Fourth of July parade, a lot of rainbow colors,” Matsuura says. “People were feeling pretty happy about Pocatello.” 

Within 60 days of its passage, however, the ordinance’s opponents -- determined to see it repealed — started gathering signatures. They collected over 1,600, enough to put the survival of the law up to a popular referendum May 20, 2014. At the time, Local 8 TV news reported petitioners had been misleading residents as to the nature of their appeal. One woman asked them, "So this is not to change the ordinance, but to keep the conversation going?" The response: "Right." 

The opposition website has taken a similarly underhanded approach, saying “members of the LGBT Community and others have been bullied and mistreated and this fact must not remain unaddressed” while at the same time suggesting the ordinance hurts “women and children.” The site refreshes its audience with a primer about the basic tenets of the Right’s ubiquitous “gay agenda.”

By November 2013, the ordinance had become a hot-button issue in the city council election. Roger Bray, a local pastor and city council member who voted in favor of the ordinance, was turned out of office. In the local newspaper he blamed his support of the LGBT protections for his defeat. Gary Moore, another council member who voted for the ordinance, narrowly kept his seat.

One of the ordinance’s more vocal foes, Ralph Lillig hosts a weekly talk show on public access Vision 12. He sits between two plants, near what looks like a Bob Ross painting. During the opening credits, lightning literally strikes the title of the show in fiery judgment. The hour-long sermons that follow contain even more anti-gay judgment, if not fire and brimstone.

In recent weeks, the ordinance’s proponents have rallied. Fair Pocatello, a collection of straight allies and LGBT community members, has gone to local events to drum up support. They hired a campaign organizer to spearhead get-out-the-vote efforts, including neighborhood canvassing and phone banks.

James Ruchti is a Fair Pocatello member, a West Point graduate and married father of two. He’s worried supporters of the referendum may not have enough votes to stop its repeal. He says that because Idaho leans Republican and because Democrats do not face contested elections at the state level, turnout in favor of the ordinance could be low.

For her part, Matsuura says she’s cautiously optimistic. “I plan on getting out of town the day after just for some down time away from it because I know how devastating (losing) could be to me.” She pauses and adds, “but we’re not going to lose. We can’t.”