On a cold December evening, about 100 people gathered in downtown Boise to learn more about Add the Words. The group advocates on behalf of LGBTQ folks, and is focused on adding the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act.
This isn’t the first time they’ve tried to change Idaho law. In 2015, lawmakers held a 20-hour hearing on the measure. But the bill was voted down in committee by the Republican majority. Since then, the measure has not gained traction, even though Democratic lawmakers continue to push for change.
Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln, one of the leaders of Add the Words, says she knows some people want protections for trans folks to be dropped from a potential bill.
“We’re not willing to do that. We’re not going to leave anybody behind, including our trans brothers and sisters and nonbinary family members,” she says. “So it has to be add all four words. All of the words, not two of the words, not some of the words — all of it.”
Erin Leach hopes Add the Words can make a difference in her life. She lives in Caldwell, and has been looking for a job in the Treasure Valley for over a year without any luck. She thinks the reason she’s not getting hired is because she’s transgender.
“Either you can see it right on the interviewer’s face, or there has been a few occasions where I was told that’s why they wouldn’t hire me, despite the fact that these were jobs I interviewed for in Boise,” Leach says.
Even though Boise is one of 13 Idaho cities with a law that protects against this kind of discrimination, Leach says it hasn’t stopped employers from denying her a job.
Kathy Griesmeyer from the ACLU of Idaho says they regularly receive complaints about discrimination against trans folks.
“From a national standpoint, in terms of the rhetoric around transgender rights and the passing a lot of anti-trans legislation, we know it’s happening, and I think there’s also a number of underrepresented stories,” Griesmeyer says.
Leach is 48 years old. She has a degree in Illustration and Design from the Academy of Art University. She previously worked as a freelance comic book artist, doing art for comics including Transformers and Star Trek. But she says comic book artists typically have a short career span, and says after a few years, she surpassed her peak time in the industry.
She lives with her sister and the only income she makes comes from the military. She’s a combat veteran and served four years in the Army when she was in her twenties.
“I make $770 a month from the military. That’s it. Half of which they take away from me for my student loan payments,” she says.
Leach says she’s been applying for jobs related to her field of expertise with no luck. She’s also applied to work at grocery stores — jobs that require little to no experience. She’s starting to feel desperate.
But she says she won’t pursue legal action for violations of Boise’s law. To her, the city ordinance is “pointless” and isn’t enforced like it should be.
“It seems like a nice gesture, but it doesn’t have any weight behind it. It needs to have weight. Because like I said, this problem is going on,” Leach says.
Kathy Griesmeyer from the ACLU says the ordinances themselves don’t detail the information or evidence needed to start an investigation. But she says those who believe they were discriminated against should take notes on when it happened, who was there, the time of day and any other details or descriptions that can be remembered.
If the city isn’t taking these ordinance violations seriously, she says victims of discrimination should bring their concerns to the ACLU.
“The ACLU would certainly be interested in hearing from those folks and knowing that perhaps the process or policy that the cities have adopted is not actually providing relief to folks,” Griesmeyer says.
Leach thinks statewide a nondiscrimination law is the way to move forward. She says it would be more powerful than citywide laws, because people would take it more seriously. She lived in Klamath Falls, Oregon for a couple of years, and says that when she saw Oregon pass marriage equality in 2014, she watched the entire state become more tolerant.
“They passed that state law, and it changed people. In small communities like Klamath Falls, it’s not a large place,” she says. “But the attitude changed there overnight, because it empowered us.”
But to get statewide protections, Add the Words will have to convince members of the Republican majority. Brent Hill is the Senate Pro-Tem. The Republican leader has spent multiple years trying to pass a compromise bill, but says it’s difficult to get people to come together.
“We just ask people to be open-minded. I think this could be a win-win solution. I don’t think anybody has to walk away feeling like they’re losing something, but people have to be willing to give something to the other side,” he says.
He thinks a new bill will be discussed during this year’s session, but cautions that it takes time.
But for Leach, time is running out. She says she’s considering moving to a more progressive state if the legislature can’t pass a law protecting her soon.
“If all of the people in the state were to stand up and say ‘look, this is unacceptable, we have to have this,’ and write their representatives,” Leach says, “demand it from the representatives, don’t suggest it, say ‘no, it’s got to be this way,’ demand it from them — then it would change.”
Add the Words will ask folks to stand up for people like Leach during a gathering at the capitol building this Wednesday, January 16. Leach says it will take allies from around the state to demand change from lawmakers.
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