Missouri legislators promote LGBT anti-discrimination laws

Neighboring Illinois passed same-sex marriage in its Senate.

Illinois and Missouri may share a border, but their political differences are stark.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn supports same-sex marriage, and has recognized civil unions since 2011. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon opposes same-sex marriage and told KOMU in October that he does not expect the Republican-controlled legislature to take any action on the issue in 2013.

A same-sex marriage bill passed the senate in neighboring Illinois on Feb. 14, but activists and legislators say Missouri needs to make progress on smaller gay rights issues before considering same-sex marriage.

Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, one of three openly gay members in the Missouri legislature, said Missouri must first pass laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Right now, in Missouri, it is legal to fire someone because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or perceived to be LGBT,” Justus said. “So it is important to me that LGBT individuals have the same rights as far as equality in housing, employment and public accommodation discrimination as everybody else.”

Justus has sponsored anti-discrimination legislation every year since she was elected in 2007. The 2013 senate bill includes a Republican co-sponsor, and a similar bill is being considered in the house also has bipartisan support.

“I’m not going to rule out passing this thing this year,” Justus said. “The reality is this type of legislation is being passed more and more across the country, even in what are considered red states.”

MU policy currently prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The MU Equity office works to address issues of bias and illegal discrimination on campus and conducts informal investigations of bias incidents students and staff report. Columbia also has nondiscrimination laws and goes a step further than MU by also prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

Although MU, Columbia, and a few cities and counties in the state have nondiscrimination laws, Claire Cook, field organizer at statewide LGBT rights advocacy organization PROMO, said it is important to extend the laws.

“Currently, we have nine cities and two counties that have these protections,” Cook said. “But some areas are unincorporated or really small towns, so statewide protection is what we think is best. (Nondiscrimination) is the number one issue for LGBT equality in Missouri.”

While legislators and advocates focus on nondiscrimination, Missourians’ views on same-sex marriage have been evolving. In 2004, 71 percent of Missourians voted to amend the state constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman, but a July 2012 Public Policy Polling survey found that 64 percent of Missourians supported either marriage equality or civil unions for gay couples.

Justus said she does not consider Missouri to be a leader on LGBT equality issues.

“Frankly, the country is moving a lot faster than our government is,” she said.

Since the legislation was first proposed in 2007, PROMO’s top priority has been nondiscrimination, said Cook.

“There are only 20 states and the District of Columbia that have fully inclusive nondiscrimination, so that’s less than half," Cook said. “I wouldn’t say we’re lagging behind, but we’re at the cliff and we’re about to jump off and really do something great by joining that other side.”

Justus said she thinks Missouri is not yet ready to tackle marriage equality.

“Everyone always asks me if I’m in favor of marriage equality, and of course I’m in favor of marriage equality, but that’s not the fight we’re fighting here,” Justus said. “We are fighting more basic fights, including basic nondiscrimination.”

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