Non-Discrimation: Vicco, Kentucky and Beyond

Former First Lady and human rights activist Eleanor Roosevelt spoke before the United Nations in 1958 saying, “Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.” This adage again proved true when, earlier this month, the town of Vicco, Kentucky – certainly not a town on any maps of the world I’ve ever seen– passed a local ordinance banning all discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Vicco is an old coal-country town with only 335 residents. Since many of the coal companies moved out of the region, Vicco’s residents and its City Commissioners have had to grapple with a depressed economy, crippling infrastructure, local corruptions and – apparently – the specter of heterosexism. But a new mayor and the four-person City Commission are fighting to change all of this, beginning with January’s 3-1 vote to ban all discrimination against the LGBT community.

That such a ban could be passed in such an assumedly conservative place is certainly a testament to several factors. First, that the capacity of local activists and icons, like Vicco’s openly gay mayor Johnny Cummings, should never be underestimated. Second, that our assumptions about where and from whom LGBT rights and LGBT acceptance begins (what some queer theorists have come to call metronormativity) needs rethinking. And finally, that the ideal of non-discrimination and equal treatment may not be so at odds with conservative America, even in places like Vicco, Kentucky where marriage equality may still be a long way away.

It can be easy to forget that the United States still does not have any nation-wide protection for LGBT people in the workplace, schools and other accommodations. Currently in 29 states it is legal to fire, refuse to hire, demote or fail to promote an LGBT person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and in another five states such discrimination is allowed only against the transgender community. This lack of protection results in serious workplace discrimination: 27% of lesbians and gays and 78% of the transgender community reporting some amount of discrimination or harassment. With such discrimination comes real economic consequences, with gay and lesbian people as likely or more likely to live in poverty as their heterosexual counterparts; the poverty rate in the transgender community is four times higher than the cisgender community.

Fortunately there is hope on the horizon on both a federal and local level. Ending the 112th Congress with 171 co-sponsors in the House and 43 in the Senate, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is gaining strength. This bill, which would expand employment protections in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect the LGBT community, is expected to be reintroduced by Representative Jared Polis early this year. On a state level both Utah and Ohio are taking steps toward protecting their LGBT communities. And just today a bill was proposed in the Maryland state legislature to expand their ban on discrimination against lesbians and gays to include the transgender community.

As a Jewish issue this is pretty simple. If we truly believe that all people are created in the same image, the image of God, how can we justify such discrimination and unequal treatment? And as a people who once needed such laws to protect ourselves from discrimination, how can we abide such discrimination against others? That is why the Reform Movement has endorsed and fought for LGBT rights and legislation like ENDA for over 35 years. That is why we are currently activating our congregations in Utah and Ohio (and around the country) to take action on this issue. And that is why nearly two hundred high school students have already lobbied their members of congress in support of ENDA this year as part of our L’Taken seminars. As these changes continue to develop, in places both close and far from home, be sure to check back with RACBlog and our LGBT equality page for the latest information.

Image Courtesy of LGBTQ Nation

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About Benny Witkovsky

Benny Witkovsky is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant, he is from Madison, WI, and recently graduated from Vassar College.


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