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Change in tone advances Idaho gay rights prospects

Dan Popkey
March 21, 2013
Idaho Statesman

A year ago, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill walked though a gauntlet of 30 aggrieved citizens wearing "Add the Words" T-shirts, hands over their mouths, after his committee declined to print a bill barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Shouts of "Shame on you!" and "What a joke!" stung, prompting the affable Hill to ask reporters for a break and decline comment.

At Wednesday's session, the Lincoln Auditorium was just as packed as last year, but committee members were listening, rather than feeling harried and uncomfortable.

Afterward, Hill hugged former Sen. Nicole LeFavour, Idaho's first openly gay lawmaker, and warmly congratulated retired Hewlett Packard executive Don Curtis and Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb for their work.

Hill, R-Rexburg, and the Legislature's State Affairs committees still aren't ready to "Add the Words" to Idaho's Human Rights Act, along with race, sex, color, religion, national origin and disability.

"I don't know that it's going to lead to something next year or down the road," Hill said. "I do think it's healthy to gain an understanding and appreciation of one another."

The meeting was scheduled at the request of Buckner-Webb and Rep. Grant Burgoyne, both Boise Democrats. GOP leaders agreed, with two conditions: No vote would be taken on a bill that's not ripe for passage and testimony would be limited to a panel of speakers chosen by organizers.

"I appreciate the respect for the process and the committee," said Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, at the close of the hour-long session. "It's open dialogue that's important on issues like this."

All nine members of McKenzie's committee were present, along with all 16 members of the House State Affairs Committee led by Tom Loertscher, R-Iona.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, a longtime friend of Buckner-Webb's, welcomed the civility. "Last year was pretty testy," he said. "It helps that we don't feel bullied. You can't understand one another if you're in everybody's face hollering."

Winder questioned panelists and other supporters about gaps in state and federal civil rights law and sought data about discrimination in the workplace and housing. Later, he said, "It opens up the possibility of some targeted legislation."

McKenzie says he won't bring an "Add the Words" bill to the committee unless prospects for passage are good. "Whether or not that has changed, I don't know. But I believe when you have dialogue like we had today, that's what potentially leads to changed minds."

The panel appealed on ethical and practical grounds.

Curtis, general manager of HP's Boise plant for 18 years, spoke of his shock at learning his oldest son and namesake was gay and how HP's implementation of an anti-discrimination policy in the early 1990s helped attract and retain the bright minds vital to a high-tech company.

"It was the right and the compassionate decision and it was the right business decision," Curtis said. He also invited every lawmaker to meet with him, his wife, Susan, and his son, Don, who was recruited by HP, where he's now a 14-year veteran.

"You and I, we're all good, caring, rational, compassionate people," Curtis told lawmakers. "Let us talk together and truly understand the depth and importance of this injustice."

Buckner-Webb, recently named Idaho's Mother of the Year, told me she's now receiving emails and phone calls that had her fighting tears in the retelling.

"I'm hearing from so many mothers across the state that say, 'I live in small-town Idaho and my daughter or my son can't come home,'" she said. "I'm hearing from parents saying, 'I can't speak it, but will you help me out?' When you think about your babies being hurt, we've got to step up."

How does she read the chances in 2014?

"They ought to be tired of this after seven years," she said of her colleagues. "I don't like 'oughts' and 'shoulds,' but the light comes on at some time. I'm ready for the light."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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