Witnessing History: Kansas Governor Signs Anti-Discrimination Order
September 15, 2007
TOPEKA, Kan. -- Cora Holt had tears in her eyes. A human services specialist with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, Holt had once lost a job because she was a lesbian.
On Friday, Aug. 31, I stood with Holt, other state employees and equality activists, waiting for Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to arrive in her Statehouse office for a signing ceremony.
I attended because I helped with the Kansas Equality Coalition?s publicity on the event. The non-partisan coalition, dedicated to ending discrimination against LGBT people, worked with the governor?s office on the executive order?s language, along with the Human Rights Campaign?s Kansas City affiliate and the Kansas Democratic LGBT Caucus.
More than 20 of us had come from all over Kansas to witness the event. We were LGBT and straight, mothers and fathers, Democrats and Republicans, young and old. For Holt, the signing ceremony was personal in a way that went beyond politics, activism or speeches.
Holt reached out to touch the executive order that was waiting for Sebelius? signature. ?Touching this is touching my freedom,? Holt said. ?I don?t have to live in the closet anymore. I can be honest about who I am.?
Soon afterward, Sebelius arrived, made a statement and picked up a black Sharpie pen. With one quick motion, the governor signed the order protecting Holt and 25,000 other executive branch employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Holt beamed. We all applauded. But it wasn?t only the governor?s signature that made history that day; it was also her words.
Sebelius told TV cameras and newspaper reporters that taking this action was simply the right thing to do.
?We were out of date and out of step,? Sebelius said. ?We need to make sure in Kansas that all of our employees are treated with dignity and respect and that the doors to state employment are open to all.?
Sebelius also told reporters that she supports Senate Bill 163, which would extend protection against discrimination to all LGBT Kansans. The bill is pending in a Senate committee and could be taken up by the Legislature when it returns to work in January. This was the first time the governor has spoken out on the bill.
Sebelius? words and sincerity touched my heart deeply that Friday. After answering reporters? questions, she got up from her desk and waded into the crowd to hand out ceremonial pens. As Sebelius began to greet people, she said, ?I?m sorry it took us so long.?
It was an apology I welcomed hearing.
Sebelius? order is a step forward, but it only provides protection to employees who work for the governor. Among Kansas municipalities, only Lawrence, Mission, Topeka and Shawnee County provide protection against LGBT job discrimination in one form or another. However, even that protection is limited to city employees in some cities, such as Topeka.
In Missouri, LGBT state employees are not protected against discrimination. They can still be legally fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
After the ceremony, Jason Dilts wrote about the problem of discrimination in an e-mail to members of the Kansas Democratic LGBT Caucus. Dilts is president of the caucus and a founding member of the Equality Coalition.
?Many people do not realize that in the 21st Century it is legal to fire someone from their job for being gay,? he wrote. ?Unless a state?s non-discrimination law expressively lists sexual orientation as a protected class, gay people are at risk of being fired for no reason other than their employer objects to their sexuality. That is the reality for gay and lesbian people in 30 states across the country, and for transsexuals the numbers are even worse.?
At the same time that governments are lagging, corporate America has moved ahead to fight discrimination. More than 90 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have already implemented non-discrimination policies including sexual orientation, according to HRC. The most recent corporate anti-discrimination policies also include gender identity.
A May 2007 Gallup Poll found that 89 percent of Americans believe that lesbians and gays should have ?equal rights in terms of job opportunities.? A 2004 Hart Research poll found that 65 percent of those surveyed believed that it should be illegal to fire people if they are transgender.
Sebelius? executive order doesn?t end the debate over fairness in Kansas. Judging by some reactions to the order, the fight is just heating up. Rep. Arlen Siegfreid, of Olathe, chairman of the House committee that would consider this kind of issue, pledged to look at it during the upcoming session.
A national conservative organization, the Liberty Counsel, has already called the governor?s action ?radical.?
I have to wonder, though, about their definition of the word ?radical.? How radical is it to treat people fairly and judge them on the quality of their work? How radical is it to live by the Golden Rule?