Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Diplomacy Needed

The city council takes up discrimination based on sexual orientation

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2012 at 11:35 AM

Divided We Stand. And if Memphians can't find something to divide us, then we'll just look a little harder.

As if race, public schools, superintendents, the riverfront, and Liberty Bowl Stadium aren't enough, a few more "where do you stand?" questions have been thrown into the mix: bike lanes on city streets, and Chick-fil-A and gays.

In the latest media attention grabber, the Memphis City Council has taken up a antidiscrimination ordinance with specific attention to sexual orientation. The ordinance is supported by the Tennessee Equality Project, which supports gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals. The vote was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, too late for Flyer deadlines for this week's newspaper.

Council members said they expected to hear from several speakers but did not know if any of them would be current or former city employees with personal stories about discrimination.

This looks like a solution in search of a problem. Testimonials could present fresh evidence, but three city and county mayors whose tenures spanned three decades recalled few if any such instances when I talked to them.

Willie Herenton, mayor of Memphis from 1992 to 2009, remembered a couple of events, but they were not directly related to city policy or city employees. In 2000, he met with Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998 in a hate crime. She was in Memphis to give a talk, and Herenton offered his sympathy. Another time, Herenton went to a ribbon cutting at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Midtown. He was criticized both times, he recalled.

"My philosophy was that discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation is just wrong," he said.

Bill Morris, Shelby County mayor from 1978 to 1994, could not remember any complaints based on sexual orientation reaching his office but said it was possible that they would have been handled by a division director without his knowledge.

"That was never an issue for us," he said. "My policy was equal rights for everyone from the time I was elected. I established that on day one."

Dick Hackett, mayor of Memphis from 1982 to 1991, said activists tried to force the issue once, but his position was that federal law covered all types of discrimination.

"We said we would abide by federal law that is already on the books," he said. "I think somebody thought they were going to get us to fight it. The issue was probably more divisive back then."

Memphis mayor A C Wharton, ever accommodating in his 10 years as county mayor and city mayor, has met with thousands of groups and activists but has stayed out of this debate and left it to the city council. Present policy prohibits discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veteran status, political affiliation, or other non-merit factors." The proposed ordinance could wind up being watered down to a general statement of nondiscrimination, like a similar proposed ordinance that came before the Shelby County Commission.

As Hackett said, things were different back when the word "gay" might have still had some shock value. In 30 years of covering city and county government on and off, I have probably known several gay employees, but sexual orientation did not come up in our conversations, so I really cannot say. If a city employee failed to get official redress for a grievance based on anti-gay discrimination, I think I can safely say that there are members of the Memphis media who would consider that a possible story.

The reasons I have heard and read for the need for this ordinance are unpersuasive at best and silly at worst:

Memphis should do it because Knoxville and Nashville did it and Memphis will be compared unfavorably to them.

Richard Florida, "the guru of the creative class," thinks cities should make sure they are known to be gay friendly.

An ordinance is stronger than a general policy, because it is harder to change.

An ordinance is needed, because this is a civil rights issue and Memphis is home of the National Civil Rights Museum, where supporters of the ordinance rallied last week.

I say, what else is new, so what, don't think so, and hypothetical job discrimination against gays at work is not morally equivalent to legal segregation and racism.

Memphis should be a city where people think for themselves. And a little more diplomacy and a lot less confrontation would serve us well.

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