War is hell — especially when you’re particularly fond of the enemy.
No, I’m not talking about al Qaeda or Iraq. I mean the war I covered for 10 years as a reporter and editor at a gay newspaper — the war involving the struggle for gay civil rights. I’m talking about what happens when that war hits home and battles are fought on familiar turf.
Last week my hometown newspaper reported on an effort by the Human Rights Commission in Burlington, Iowa, to get the city council to add sexual orientation to the employment non-discrimination law. The council rejected that recommendation, saying it has no funding or resources to uphold such a law. The mayor, a man I’ve never met and knew nothing about until I read this article, is quoted as saying, “Why would we want to make a change when we can’t enforce it? ”
To their credit, members of the city council asked its human resources director to find out how much other cities in Iowa have to pay to deal with complaints about sexual orientation. That order implies an interest in doing the right thing at some point down the line. But I grew up in this town and lately I’ve been returning frequently to visit; I know it’s no gay Mecca, and the chances that people will start bursting out of closets and screaming about anti-gay workplace bias are pretty slim. In fact, the newspaper article quotes the head of a local PFLAG chapter — a new organization that certainly wasn’t around when I came out to my mother in 1991 — who says he knows 11 whole people who are afraid that if they came out at work, their employers might fire them.
Let’s say my town did add sexual orientation to its list of protected classes in the city code’s employment non-discrimination language. I’m guessing that at least some of the aforementioned 11 employers would decide that they didn’t want to violate the law and risk the sanctions and repercussions. Maybe a few jobs would be at risk, if all 11 of those gay people stepped forward and came out — but this city that raised me can’t afford to tend to those few citizens?
I have a feeling that if and when my little town completes its investigation into the costs of such a change in the law, they’ll learn that even the bigger cities in Iowa aren’t verging on broke as a result of these protections. Anti-gay bias may be the trendiest form of discrimination right now, but chances are still greater that people of color — who don’t have a choice about whether or not they disclose their minority status — will face problems in the workplace.
When things are going haywire back in Burlington, I turn to my mom for answers. I e-mailed the article to her last week with a note asking what was going on back in my hometown. I’m not sure if she was speaking for herself when she told me that some gay-supportive people in Burlington aren’t happy about the push for legal protections. She told me about one gay man who “is afraid that they are going to stir up trouble for the city because it is smaller…. There has been no gay-bashing [in Burlington] and he would like to keep it that way. ”
I can certainly appreciate concern about anti-gay violence. But I hardly think that progressive politics create an atmosphere where people want to express their opinions with violence. What encourages violence is the suggestion that there are people in this world — in this case gay people — who do not deserve to be treated fairly or on a par with others.
A few years ago I opined on the pages of my home state’s largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, about the aftermath of the governor’s executive order banning anti-gay discrimination in state employment. Some conservative legislators vowed to overturn the order, and succeeded in their mission through the courts. I noted in my Register essay that this clear message from some Iowa Republicans was a perfect example of what made me flee the state as a 21-year-old who had recently finished college. I had spent a couple of years as a gradually more and more open lesbian, and was becoming gradually more and more aware of how oppressive my environment was.
Anyone who knows me — anyone who reads my writing or listens to me reminisce — knows that I personify the notion of taking the girl out of Iowa, but not being able to get the Iowa out of the girl. I am fiercely loyal to the place where my roots stretch deep, the place where my face flushed pink in the hot summers and where I learned how to navigate a car in snowstorms. I wouldn’t trade my Iowa heritage for anything.
I would, though, trade in the reticence of my fellow Iowans — those who still walk on that great fertile soil — to extend civil rights to all of the state’s people. I have a dear friend from high school whose gay younger brother still lives in Iowa, and I hear occasionally how miserable he is there. I tell her and her parents that they should ship him out to D.C. — but what kind of answer is that? You can run, but you can’t hide. Iowa won’t change because people like me decided to take an easier route.
So here’s to the Burlington/Southeast Iowa chapter of PFLAG and all the others trying to get justice from the Burlington City Council. Here’s hoping they don’t give up the good fight — so the next news article I read will make me smile with pride.
Kristina Campbell still says she’s “going home ” when she travels to Iowa, but she writes her biweekly column from Takoma Park, Md. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.