After Sam, Statehouse anti-discrimination legislation gains new life

With last week’s events fresh in their minds, equality advocates look ahead.

First, it was former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. The former Tiger came out as gay to a whirlwind of national attention and now stands to become the first-ever openly gay player in the NFL.

Two days following Sam’s announcement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a suit against the state on behalf of eight same-sex couples for state marriage benefits, which the ACLU said should be constitutionally guaranteed to couples legally married in another state.

A day later came the call from Gov. Jay Nixon for voters to repeal the statewide ban, passed by referendum in 2004, on same-sex marriage — a ban that until now had gone largely unchallenged by legislators and executives alike.

Backing from executives like Nixon and President Barack Obama, who announced his support for same-sex marriage in 2012, coupled with court rulings, ballot initiatives and the coming-out of public figures ranging from Sam to actress Ellen Page have given the push for same-sex marriage equality and anti-discrimination legislation a new wave of momentum, said State Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia.

“If you look over the last year, you can argue for almost every week in the last year being a pretty big leap,” Webber said.

Webber is the sponsor of House Bill 1858, a nondiscrimination measure that would extend existing statewide protections to categories of sexual orientation and gender identity.

As it stands now, Missourians can be legally fired, kept out of public accommodations like bars and restaurants, or denied housing on the basis of their sexual orientation or perceived gender identity. Some municipalities, including Columbia, have enacted civic ordinances to criminalize such discrimination, but to Missouri lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group PROMO, citywide ordinances are not enough.

“When we talk about (statewide) basic protections, it is simply just a matter of time,” PROMO director A.J. Bockelman said. “Public opinion has shifted considerably around this issue, and we’ve seen a huge generational shift. And people on both sides of the aisle feel that it’s just time that we finally take this step and get this to the governor.”

HB1858’s parent legislation, Senate Bill 757, comes from the desk of Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City. Justus, the first openly gay member in the history of the Missouri Senate, has pushed for identical legislation for years. While hers was the first bill of its kind to ever pass through a chamber in the Republican-controlled Statehouse, it died when the House failed to pass its counterpart.

But this year, Webber said, attitudes have changed. The only roadblock, he said, is education. When former State Rep. Zach Wyatt, a Republican, came out as gay in 2012, Webber said it helped to inform other conservative legislators as to how they should approach LGBT issues.

And even if the examples of Sam, the ACLU and Nixon don’t shift public opinion this year, Bockelman said, it’s a gradual process. Bockelman looked to the example of Illinois, which legalized same-sex marriage in November after a 20-year battle. Missouri, he said, has only even considered it for 10 years and might be in it for the long haul.

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