Multiple Protests, Arrests, But Is Idaho Any Closer To Gay Rights Law?
By Jessica Robinson
This winter, protests hit the Idaho Capitol at a level rarely seen in Boise. Gay rights activists blocked entrances and were marched away in handcuffs. They want Idaho's Republican-controlled legislature to pass an anti-discrimination law similar to those in Oregon and Washington. It would make it illegal for employers, landlords and most businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But lawmakers plan to wrap up the session this Friday without ever printing the bill.
It's a few minutes before closing time at Idaho's capitol building. The sounds of closing office doors echo through the rotunda. But the four people who have been standing with a hand symbolically over their mouth aren't moving.
Nicole LeFavour: “We keep our hand over our mouth as long as we can. Until they cuff us.”
Photo: Handcuffed gay rights activists wait to be put in Idaho State Police patrol cars after staging a sit-in after hours at the Idaho Capitol. Photo by Jessica Robinson
Nicole LeFavour is whispering in the cavernous rotunda. She used to be a state senator here and was the first, and so far only openly gay lawmaker in Idaho. Now LeFavour is the driving force behind the “Add the Words” protests. It’s named for the goal to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho's anti-discrimination law.
Nicole LeFavour: “I really do feel like I tried everything. I think we finally realized ... this was was all we had left. Just to get them to look at us, to hear us.”
LeFavour has lost count of how many times she's been arrested – at least five times. And still there's no progress on the bill. So LeFavour is prepared to get arrested again tonight and charged with another misdemeanor.
LeFavour: “And the lights are going out now.”
About half an hour later, the Idaho State Police show up to tell everyone including me that it’s time to go. Police officer: “You need to leave – if you're with the news you need to leave.”
I go while LeFavour and the other protesters choose to stay. A few minutes later outside, state troopers walk the protesters down the steps in handcuffs and put them into patrol cars.
This session, police were called to the Idaho capitol almost weekly to remove protesters blocking doors or staging late-night sit-ins. In the first demonstration, 44 people were arrested. It was a departure from previous tactics. Protesters hope to pressure Republican lawmakers into ending eight straight years of declining to consider the anti-discrimination bill for gays, lesbians and trans people.
Scott Bedke: “I can only imagine how frustrated the proponents feel at this point.”
Photo: Add the Words protesters encircle the upper level of the rotunda at the Idaho Capitol. They put a hand over their mouth to symbolize how they've been "silenced" by lawmakers, who have declined to hold a hearing on an anti-discrimination bill. Photo by Jessica Robinson.
That’s Republican Scott Bedke, the speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives.
Scott Bedke: “But at the same time, I don't think Idahoans are ready to create a separate class of citizen, or create another class of citizen.”
What's more, the acts of civil disobedience have drawn widespread criticism from Republican lawmakers and Republican Gov. Butch Otter. Bedke says the disruption to legislative business and the estimated thousands of dollars it takes to call in Idaho state police officers – may have backfired on the proponents.
Scott Bedke: “I think it just polarizes, I think it just makes it easy for people to say, 'Not this year.'”
Seven cities in Idaho have passed local gay-rights ordinances. But Idaho is among 29 states that don't have specific language in their state discrimination laws protecting sexual orientation. Still, not everyone in the Add the Words political action committee is on board with the civil disobedience. But co-chair Mistie Tolman disputes the notion that it’s set them back.
Mistie Tolman: “In my opinion what it comes down to is simple math. Zero times anything is zero. And we were at zero. We have never gotten a public hearing. So how can they have hurt a cause that was already at nowhere?”
Tolman argues Idaho’s lawmakers are lagging behind the rest of the country, and their own constituents, on this issue. She cites a 2011 poll commissioned by the ACLU that found 81 percent of Idahoans think it shouldn't be legal to fire someone because they're gay. In February, former Republican governor Phil Batt wrote an op-ed condemning the “disdain” Idaho has for “people who are different” and urged the legislature to pass the anti-discrimination law.
Gary Moncrief is a professor of political science at Boise State University. He says if nothing else, the add the words protests along with similar protests in Utah have succeeded in one important area … getting attention.
Gary Moncrief: “If you Google 'gay rights arrests' right now you will find in the top 10 sites or so, the top 10 articles on that – the four places being mentioned are Zimbabwe, Russia, Idaho and Utah.”
Protests or not, some in the Republican leadership say change will come in Idaho. Sen. Curt McKenzie chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee. McKenzie says Idaho in general has shifted on gay rights along with the rest of the country.
Curt McKenzie: “We're not an island. Opinions on this issue have changed over time. And I think Idaho's laws will reflect that. It just may take time for that to happen.”
But protesters say they're tired of waiting.
On one brisk morning toward the end of the legislative session, a couple dozen people gathered at Balcony, a gay bar in downtown Boise just blocks from the capitol. They prepared for another action that could lead to more arrests …
Ty Carson: “Somebody touches you, you say, (crowd, together) 'Am I under arrest?'”
Activists say the legislative session won’t be the end of it. They’re prepared to take the demonstrations to lawmakers’ home districts.