Fighting for LGBT job and housing rights in two different ways

Apr 10, 2013

In November we told you about the debate in the Missouri legislature over including sexual orientation and gender identity in the Human Rights act. It would offer protection to make sure LGBT aren’t discriminated for housing and employment discrimination. There are two groups trying to achieve the same goal in two different ways. One organization is trying to get the state legislature to change policy, while another wants to leave the decision to voters on the ballot in 2014.

AJ Bockelman, the lobbyist and Executive Director of PROMO an LGBT advocacy organization in Missouri, has been lobbying for the same bill in Jefferson City for six years, only half as long as it has been in discussion in the Missouri legislature. He is now in the first phase of the process, getting legislators to sign on as cosponsors.

“So, Rep Carpenter, this is Stephen Webber’s non discrimination bill, it adds sexual orientation and gender identity into the human rights statute for protections for employment, housing and public accommodations,” Bockelman said, as he approached one of the state representatives he hoped would support the bill.

Bockelman has refined his approach after several years of experience. As we walk the bill through the long hallways of the capitol he explains how he gets the repeat supporters to sign on first .
He gets more consistent support from democrats than republicans but he has strategies to try and  persuade legislators.

“Amongst republicans we will look at districts that are swing districts, often times will go back between partisan divides. Perhaps it’s a way a republican will pick up some democratic votes because it’s such a high profile issue...We identify supporters that will out themselves, they will have a friend or family member whose close to them who is gay or lesbian, they will know transgender people in their community and it breaks down the barriers,” Bockelman said.

Bockelman is a man of medium height, short black hair and a stout build. He wears a suit and tie and has a slight beard. He says many legislators mistake him as a lobbyist for the military and are surprised when they find out he is an LGBT activist. Once he brings up the issue he is careful to avoid certain hot buttons.  

“I go through a mental checklist. I go through our basic talking points I am not going to argue religion with someone. I am not going to challenge their personal beliefs,” Bockelman said.

Representative Anne Zerr is a co-sponsor of the bill and one of the few in her party in support so far. She is a republican, although she has doubts the bill will pass this year.  Zerr says she declined to bring the issue up during her election because she was unsure how it would be received.

“ I just stayed quiet about it when I was running for office because I didn't quite know where the party was on it ,” Zerr said.

According to Zerr, the Republican Party does not take an official position on this issue, and leaves it up to the individual to decide. One individual from Zerr’s party who does not support this bill is Representative Kurt Bahr. He thinks the groups that need to be protected under law already are.

“So I think the list includes  the major categories of things that nobody can change about themselves without going down that rabbit trail of which group should be the protected group and which group shouldn’t be protected,” Bahr said.

Aaron Malin co-founder of Missourians for Equality wants the same things Bockelman does, but thinks there’s a better way. He sees the delay in the legislature and wants to take up with issue with Missourians on the ballot instead.

“A huge disconnect actually between the public and their representatives. The people support this, polling indicates that but their representatives don’t. There is a very big difference on this issue between public opinion and their representatives. And the initiative petition process exists for when the people really get ahead of their leaders,” Malin said.

Since the ballot initiative was approved by the state in December, volunteers have been all around Missouri collecting the signatures needed to get this issue on the 2014 ballot.

“The bigger challenge with the petition process is finding enough volunteers to gather 100,000 paper signatures over the course of about 18 months. It’s not so much convincing people that this is the right thing to do its gathering the signatures,” Malin said.

Malin says if they get all the signatures they need the group will start a public education campaign. They  plan on having individual conversations with voters. That doesn’t cost any money, but takes a lot of time.

“I think that using town hall meetings, face to face conversations and other presentations where we go into every corner of the state and just explain, hey here's what's going on here did you know? Even if you’re not gay if he thinks you’re gay. And people just don’t know that so the goal is going to be educating people on that,” Malin said.

Then of course, Malin says the plan would be a traditional advertising campaign closer to the election. Back in Jefferson City some legislators believe the issue will eventually become policy. Representative Jeremy LaFaver thinks it is a generational difference.

“I think what we are seeing now is this mostly falls down the line of age. And the younger generations are becoming more and more supportive of equality on a whole slew of things but certainly LGBT issues. The more and more the generations turn over in the legislative branch we are going to see a lot more support for issues like this and I am hopeful that if this isn’t the year it will be coming real soon,” LaFaver said.

Despite the high hopes from both groups there is a long road ahead. Bockelman is still walking the bill around the capitol, and Malin is still collecting signatures, but neither knows if their measure will work this time around - it’s a waiting game.