In the year since Idaho’s second-largest city passed its “Add the Words” ordinance, the city has not received any complaints of discrimination.
But it wasn’t a large volume of complaints that drove the ban in the first place.
Meridian City Council President Joe Borton said he suggested the ordinance last year because there was “no reason to wait.”
“It was the right thing to do, and it was the right time to act,” Borton told the Idaho Press. “And I don’t subscribe to, ‘Is there enough discrimination to warrant it?’ To me, all means all, and one is too many.”
The citywide ordinance bans discrimination in areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations, such as restaurants or stores, based on someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
Activists for years have rallied for state lawmakers to add these protections to the Idaho Human Rights Act; with no state action, 13 cities, including Meridian, have passed a local ordinance.
As of Sept. 24 — a day before the Meridian ban’s anniversary — there had been no complaints of discrimination filed with Meridian. It’s hard to track how that compares to previous years, Meridian Police Chief Jeff Lavey said, because before the ordinance was in place, these types of complaints weren’t tracked separately.
Borton said he believes the ordinance did what it was intended to do: “Sent the message of inclusion.”
“It gave the entire community that comfort that all means all,” he said.
The Idaho Press spoke with six LGBTQ Meridian residents to see how the ordinance had impacted their lives. Most expressed feeling more secure and at ease.
“Just the level of stress going into work every day has decreased so much,” said Beck DelliCarpini, a substitute teacher in Meridian. Before the ordinance passed, she feared that something as simple as a photo of her with her fiancee, Mistie Tolman, could lead to her losing her job, she said.
“It’s an enormous amount of stress on people,” Tolman said, “to work in a place where you’re constantly worried about accidentally slipping about your personal life and that resulting in your termination.”
The couple also feels more secure going out to eat or shop.
“It doesn’t matter if your server complains to the manager,” DelliCarpini said. “They can’t kick us out.”
Resident Robert Juengling said he was a bit nervous to move to the Treasure Valley from Portland when his husband got accepted into Boise State University’s social work program. Seeing the discrimination bans, though, gave him a “sense of security.” The couple bought a house in Meridian last year, and Juengling said he has not experienced discrimination here.
Meridian’s discrimination ban, in section 6-3-13 of city code, lays out a process for filing a written complaint with the city. If a complaint is lodged, the city attorney will invite both parties to participate in mediation. If mediation isn’t successful, the complaint will be forwarded to the prosecuting attorney and investigated. Anyone found to have violated the ordinance is subject to an infraction and $250 fine.
The ordinance also says someone who files a false complaint could be charged with the crime of false reporting.
Meridian’s penalty is lighter than Boise’s, which is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Boise passed its ordinance in 2012. In the past three years, the city has received one complaint.
NOT A FIX-ALL
Saga Christian, who testified in support of Meridian’s ordinance last year, said she hasn’t seen as much change in the last year as she’d hoped.
“I don’t know what I was expecting: a miracle cure, a magic one-thing-fixes-all,” she told the Idaho Press. “Maybe I had my hopes up too high.”
Christian said she still faces hate speech and discrimination. In one instance, after ordering at a fast-food restaurant, the staff ignored her until she left, she said. She didn’t file a complaint with the city, as she wasn’t able to record the interaction or prove that she wasn’t being served because of her gender identity.
“It’s hard to shake off experiences like that,” she said, “It destroys you. It makes you feel like you are not even human.”
Christian did contact police earlier this year after a man started sending her death threats on social media. The threats did not include specifics, such as when they’d be carried out. Chief Lavey said officers don’t follow-up on internet threats unless there is a time and place mentioned, and the person has the means to carry out the threats. He said also said it’s hard to prove who is making the online threats, when someone could be using a fake account.
“Sometimes it’s best for the security division of the social media company to handle by warning, suspending or permanently banning them from the platform,” Lavey said over email.
Christian said she did report the threats to the social media company, which didn’t take action. It’s upsetting, she said, to finally report discrimination and have nothing come of it.
“It is just a waste of time,” she said.
‘PROUD OF MERIDIAN’
Liz Price has had a different experience. In her 17 years in Meridian, she’s never felt discriminated against for being transgender, she said.
“I’m pretty proud of Meridian,” she said.
Price said while going out to dinner with her wife, “we get treated as two women that are going out.”
“Almost universally the serving staff ask if it is one ticket or two, so they never presume anything, which I really appreciate,” she said. “I’m actually surprised at the level of awareness that seems to be out there.”
Price, who turns 66 this month, said she doesn’t go to places with “a higher risk,” such as clubs, and doesn’t “deal with a lot of younger people.”
“There are differences that are driven by age and who you associate with and where you go,” she said.
Dom Gelsomino, who’s in his 20s, said he hasn’t faced discrimination in Meridian. What he does get, he said, is bewilderment “with me being gay and conservative.” He’s campaigned as a Republican for a seat in the state Legislature, and has run for Meridian City Council.
The city’s ordinance, he said, “was a further pillar in the structure and foundation in what constitutes Meridian.”
Even though Meridian hasn’t received any complaints, that doesn’t mean residents haven’t wanted or needed to file one.
Kathy Griesmyer, public policy strategist for the ACLU Idaho, said a lot of things could get in the way of someone filing a complaint of discrimination, including not knowing how to file or what their rights are.
Tolman said something as simple as a web page explaining what the ordinance is and who to call could make a huge difference. She’d also like to see the city council and police department hold listening sessions with LGBTQ residents, “to talk with them about what it is like to live here and work here.”
Christian agreed, noting the ordinance was a “step in the right direction,” but she would like to see a committee or group brainstorm next steps to make the community a safer place. Without enforcement, she said, the ordinance “is just a piece of paper.”
Borton and Lavey both said they’re open to those conversations.
“I think we have to be,” Borton said. “If there is a concern or a way to take care of our community better, I am just a phone call away.”