Civil rights bill a victory at last

When news came on Jan. 27 that the Washington state Legislature finally passed a gay civil rights bill, the story felt slightly anti-climactic.

I'd read of Bill Finkbeiner's conversion to the gay cause earlier this year and appreciated his impassioned speech on the senate floor about his change of heart the day of the vote. He said "I don't believe that it is say that it's acceptable to discriminate against people because of that, because of who their heart chooses to love. I cannot stand with that argument."

After decades of fits and starts with the gay rights bill, I wasn't ready to celebrate until the final vote assured victory. For a long time the bill failed to graduate out of the House. At the last moment of deliberation some invisible hand would appear and swipe the necessary vote, dooming the bill to failure by a small margin. Often that hand was rumored to be a representative of the Catholic Archdiocese in Washington state, discouraging a Catholic legislator from voting in favor of legislation protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. Sad, but true.

This tim,e Finkbeiner's vote became the one that made the difference, the only Republican to support the legislation, which passed the Senate on a 25-23 vote.

State Rep. Ed Murray, the sponsor of the legislation, deserves strong credit for his tenacity in the fight for equal rights and protection for the GLBT community in employment, housing and lending. Openly gay since 1987, I've taken these protections for granted in Seattle. While employed in public health, academia and the arts, I have never feared losing my job over my sexual preference. But the fields I've chosen tend to draw progressive, open-minded people-a very accepting lot.

Because I've never felt the sting of anti-gay bias, however, does not mean it's non-existent, nor does it mean that I haven't adjusted my behavior in subtle ways if I felt disapproving eyes on me. I think about men and women whose experiences are different than mine, or who live in other areas of the state. Places where it's difficult to be out and open. Places where even the thought of same sex couples holding hands in public feels like too much of a risk. Small denials set in once you know you're different than the rest.

On Capitol Hill, I assume I can walk down the street and not fear for my life. Pretty much all of Seattle and surrounding areas feel safe. Name calling or physical threats never cross the threshold of my experience. I think that's why the death of Matthew Shepard seven years ago and the violent attack on a Seattle man outside the Timberline tavern two summers back shocked and outraged me. We don't want to believe people can still hate, that discrimination still exists in our own backyard.

I can understand the arguments opponents of the gay rights measure make, that you cannot force people to accept a group by legal means. However, this law is not about quotas or affirmative action. Nobody is forced to hire a gay person simply because they're gay. The law protects against active discrimination that is hostile and prejudiced against human beings who cannot change who they are.

Across the lake in Redmond, a friend at Microsoft told me a story four years ago that made me extremely angry. He suffered repeated verbal abuse at the hands of a co-worker in a neighboring department, who constantly referred to my friend's shoulder bag as his "purse" and made disparaging comments about his sexuality. My friend, after a year of ignoring this harassment, finally left Microsoft (he didn't report the abuse) to take a job with a company in Seattle.

The good news in this story is that Microsoft played a pivotal role in assuring the victory for gay rights when it ignored the impotent threats of the Reverend Ken Hutcherson and his ilk and stood

behind justice and fairness, switching from a neutral to an affirmative stance toward the legislation, hand in hand with Boeing, Starbucks and many other Northwest companies.

Last year my friend returned to Microsoft to discover the bigot who made his work environment feel very unsafe had been terminated due to poor performance. I couldn't help but feel a sense of vindication for my friend, that finally "the bad guy" had received his just desserts.

If truth be told, even in liberal Seattle, subtle pressures, external or self-imposed, force us to self-censor in our social surroundings to fit in better. By not bringing our spouse to the company Christmas party, or hesitating to place a picture of our partner on our desk at work, we deny the wholeness of our lives in small ways.

When Gov. Gregoire signed this legislation, I began thinking about how we might live differently. I began thinking about how it would feel to bring my partner's picture to work and place it on my desk without hesitation, an action I avoided for years, fearing it might not be appropriate, that maybe someone might feel uncomfortable. Better not to shove my same-sex love in a co-worker's face. It is my hope with the passage of this legislation those small denials will begin to disappear for me and my community. Over the next year, there will be a fight statewide to make it so.

Jack Hilovsky's column appears in the second issue of the month. He can be reached at editor@capitol

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