With No Statewide Protections, Some Municipalities Take Up Fight for LGBTQ Rights

Oct 4, 2017

Before a September 12th Parkersburg City Council meeting, LGBTQ rights advocates held a rally to let members of the council know that, despite the failure of a non discrimination ordinance, they’ll continue to fight for equal rights in their hometown.

In early August, the Parkersburg City Council shot down an ordinance that would have protected residents from employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

One of those who rallied was Doug Evans, a recent transplant to Parkersburg from Charleston who said he and his partner had trouble finding a place to live.

“At every turn, every time I went to go speak to someone --  it was always -- it became an issue, the fact that I was in a same sex relationship,” said Evans. “I had people who offered apartments and then withdrew offers. I had people who, we were to the point that we were ready to sign leases and then they backed out. I mean, it was an absolute nightmare.

When discussion of the non-discrimination ordinance - or “NDO” - came up this past spring, opposition sprung up from some expected parties. 

“We thought maybe we had a chance, since we had a new council,” said Cammy Murray, who’s with Fairness PKB, a local chapter of the LGBTQ rights advocacy group Fairness West Virginia, “I think it probably would have went alright, but Allen Whitt and the West Virginia Family Policy Council got involved and got these churches -- not the churches, but -- these evangelical, really evangelical, fundamentalist churches involved.”

One of those churches was The Rock Family Worship Center, a church that calls itself “progressive” on its website and elsewhere online but also preaches an anti-gay agenda at its services.

“We took a stance sheerly from the Christian standpoint -- [which] is  -- when you begin opening the doors for the LGBT community to come in and have an option, really to share bathrooms, there's a perversion that takes place that we didn't want to be a part of,” said Dennis Morgan, associate pastor at The Rock, “We didn't want to see that door opened up in our community.”

On the same night in mid-September that Evans, Murray and other members of the Parkersburg LGBTQ community and their allies rallied against the failure of their NDO, Fairmont’s City Council passed an ordinance reviving a Human Rights Commission that was dormant for decades. The commission can make recommendations to city council and, in other cities, has helped shaped NDO ordinances.

But Fairness West Virginia executive director Andrew Schneider says Fairmont’s recent action stops short of truly protecting those in the gay and trans communities.

“What it does not do -- it does not give victims of LGBT discrimination a legal cause of action to take their offender to court when they are discriminated against. So, we do not consider it to be a nondiscrimination ordinance. We consider it to be a nondiscrimination resolution,” said Schneider of Fairmont's recent action.

Currently, only ten municipalities have NDOs in place that would allow for plaintiffs to bring lawsuits against those who discriminate against them based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Those include Charleston, where two suits have been brought against employers for discrimination. Huntington, Harpers Ferry, Thurmond, Sutton, Lewisburg, Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, Charles Town and Wheeling have also passed housing and employment protections for the LGBTQ community.

Wheeling mayor Glenn Elliott says passing statewide non-discrimination legislation in West Virginia can have an impact far beyond the boundaries of a town or city -- even the state. For him, it’s about busting up stereotypes of West Virginia that translate to the state and its residents being seen as backward or close minded.

“We had coverage by Reuters of an international story based in Wheeling, which was a positive story. I can't think of many other positive stories about what's happened to cities [in West Virginia] that have made international news in my lifetime,” said Elliott.

“So, that's something that is important and it shows that if you do the right thing --  you know, if you defy those stereotypes that the rest of the world has in their mind about West Virginia -- you're going to be rewarded for it. And I think the city of Wheeling reflects very, very well since we passed that. I'm proud to have been a part of it. We have more work to do to become a more inclusive city. But that's a big first step. “

More recent analysis from Reuters shows that 19 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws protecting their residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Two other states have passed laws protecting constituents based only on sexual orientation.

But, as Elliott points out, no such legislation across the entire state of West Virginia provides those protections -- meaning a person discriminated against based on sexual orientation or gender identity outside of those municipalities couldn’t file suit. But, municipal ordinances like the one in Wheeling and other cities provide that course of action on the local level.

“It would be geographical and municipalities do have the right to govern things like that in their district, said attorney and Monongalia County Delegate Barbara Fleischauer.

“And, actually, there's really a long tradition of cities and states passing ordinances. I mean -- if you think about it -- there isn't any protection nationally, either. So, there have been many, many states that have passed ordinances -- and in many, many cities,” she added.

Fleischauer has repeatedly introduced legislation on the state level known as EHNDA -- the Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Act. Bills like hers have failed to gain traction in the Legislature, but Fleischauer says she plans to keep fighting for the cause in Charleston. For now, she encourages municipalities to take it up on their own.

“We have a long tradition of doing this on race and gender. This is a very normal way to proceed when you're hitting a brick wall, maybe at the state level or the national level,” said Fleischauer. “You can at least do something in your own backyard.”

The Morgantown City Council is expected to vote on a nondiscrimination ordinance this month. Several other campaigns for LGBTQ rights are ongoing around the state.