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South Bend, Ind., considers LGBT employment protections

by Joseph Erbentraut
Contributor
Thursday Jul 22, 2010
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Activists’ renewed efforts in Indiana’s fourth largest city to pass an LGBT-inclusive human rights ordinance into law have unexpectedly met with some disparaging and bizarre claims from socially conservative organizers who oppose the measure.

With a vote expected from the South Bend’s Common Council on Monday, July 26, the Citizens for Community Values of Indiana have ramped up their efforts to thwart the amendment. The CCVI claimed in an e-blast "radical GLBT activists are back to try to push their agenda once again in the middle of summer when many families are on vacation." The message further encourages South Bend residents to pray and contact their council members and urge them to "lovingly oppose the special rights for homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendereds [sic], agenda."

The e-mail goes on to contend the amendment’s passage would affirm "homosexual behavior," promote "pro-homosexual propaganda" and even lead to an invasion of "men in dresses" into women’s restrooms and same-sex couples into neighborhoods.

"That same man in a dress will not be a good marketer for any business with a traditional customer base and should specifically not be hired because they want to wear a dress," the e-mail reads. "A married couple of faith with minor children who buy a duplex should not be forced to share life up close and personal with a homosexual couple displaying public affection in front of their minor children."

Despite the e-blast’s flagrant language, area organizers indicate opposition to the amendment has been otherwise quiet, particularly when compared to discussion around a similar bill which failed to pass the council by a one vote margin in 2006.

Compared to that incarnation, the Employment Fairness Amendment, sponsored by Democrat Councilmembers Oliver Davis, Ann Puzzello and Al "Buddy" Kirsits, has a deliberately shorter reach. The amendment pertains only to employment discrimination-avoiding issues of education or housing-and offers an exemption for faith-based entities, such as the University of Notre Dame, the city’s largest employer.

Tricia Wainscott, executive director of the South Bend-based GLBT Resource Center of Michiana, noted the comparatively quiet response from opponents. At the most recent council meeting open to the public, amendment supporters lined up and spoke to its importance to the city’s LGBT residents. No one spoke against the measure.

Wainscott still expects, however, the vote will be close, even with Mayor Stephen Luecke’s support.

"Some of the council members have already made up their minds on this and feel the issue will be really expensive for small business owners forced to hire an attorney should they need to defend themselves if someone feels they are wrongly fired for being gay," Wainscott told EDGE. "But that’s a misconception. All this amendment does is give the city’s Human Rights Commission permission to investigate these cases. It’s been blown out of proportion."

Still, should the amendment pass, Wainscott acknowledged it would be an important step forward for South Bend. Indiana lacks statewide discrimination protections of any kind on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, though Indianapolis and Bloomington have passed similar legislation. As for recognizing unions between same-sex couples, the state legislature adopted the Defense of Marriage Act in 2004 that bars any legal recognition of marriages between gays and lesbians or any "legal status identical or substantially similar to that."

"The amendment is a step in the direction we need to be going," added Wainscott. "It insures good work in the workplace and that’s what should be focused on here. I’d be glad to know my coworker is not going home at night feeling discriminated against or that they need to find a new job. I think if people stay grounded and have common sense about this vote, they’ll see that this is the right way to go."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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