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LGBT activists optimistic going into 2011

by Joseph Erbentraut
Contributor
Tuesday Dec 21, 2010
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With the military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers on its way to becoming a thing of the past, many LGBT activists’ moods have been deservingly lifted.

As the 111th Congress draws to a close, however, many activists anticipate the hard-fought repeal of
"don’t ask, don’t tell" will quite possibly be the last major LGBT milestone at the federal level until at least after the 2012 presidential election.

Despite the roadblocks ahead, however, activists in many parts of the country have already begun to look within their own state’s borders for opportunities to advance much needed protections in schools, workplaces, housing and relationship recognition for their LGBT constituents. In a bit of a twist on the traditional narrative, action is even expected in many states not typically lauded for their leadership on LGBT issues.

Despite the widely blogged reports of the state’s Republican Party’s platform advocating for criminalizing marriage for same-sex couples earlier this year, Texas activists are hopeful for advances in the coming year, most notably in the area of anti-bullying legislation. While the state’s current laws do not explicitly protect LGBT youth in schools, at least seven bills that would do exactly that have been pre-filed for consideration in the coming legislative session.

A poll released last week found 79.2 percent of respondents back the proposed legislation. More than 75 percent of respondents said they support prohibiting employment and housing discrimination, while 69.7 percent said they back trans-specific measures. And 63 percent of respondents said they support allowing gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions.

"We have found the results to be very encouraging," said Dennis Coleman, executive director of Equality Texas; adding his state is not as backwards as one may perceive-Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns are among the country’s most visible out legislators. "A lot of positive things have always been happening here in Texas so for us it’s never been a surprise. We definitely see we’re moving in the right direction. There’s a lot of real progress taking place within our state."

Utah activists have adopted a strategy that focuses on employment and housing non-discrimination ordinances. And they have scored victories in Park City and Logan and in Salt Lake and Summit Counties. The state’s heavily influential Church of Latter-Day Saints backed Salt Lake City’s LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance. And the Salt Lake City School Board voted last month to expand their bullying and hazing policy to specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, hopes to see statewide workplace and housing protections for the state’s LGBT residents by 2012. She vowed to continue her organization’s groundwork of getting those protections and improving school policies for LGBT youth at the municipal and county level.

"We still have a long way to go in terms of education on things like adoption rights for LGBT couples and on civil unions or marriage equality, but we still have a lot of things we can work on before we tackle those," said Balken.

While Equality Utah’s work continues, Balken said a strategy focused on advances at the local level has proven successful for her organization because of the more direct relationship forged between municipal governments and their constituents.

"Your city councilperson feels accountable to you," she added. "There’s a huge opportunity there to create safe communities and create change when you reach out to these local policy makers and tell them you feel it’s important all people are treated with dignity and fairness. [To tell them] that you’re a contributing member of the community."

Florida also has a reputation for not-so-progressive stances on gay issues-particularly at the statewide level, but the American Civil Liberties Union led the effort to successfully overturn the Sunshine State’s adoption ban. Counties and municipalities across Florida have moved in recent years to extend rights to their LGBT residents.

Michael Kenny, executive director of Florida Together, is proud of the victories with which many of the federation’s groups have been involved. These include the passage of a human rights ordinance in Orange County, which includes Orlando and Walt Disney World, last month.

With wide losses of pro-LGBT lawmakers in the most recent election, however, Kenny admitted the passage of any statewide measures in 2011 is unlikely. The entire state Legislature faces re-election in newly drawn districts in 2012. And Kenny hopes Florida’s activists will hit the ground running now to ensure future electoral gains.

"But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop lobbying them, advocating for our issues and finding non-traditional allies," said Kenny. "You can’t give up the fight but I’m not unrealistically optimistic or naive about it either. We’re already re-energized and re-focused on the task at hand."

Rand Hoch, founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, stressed Florida’s activists’ focus should remain on local efforts. He is particularly hopeful for progress on a non-discrimination measure in Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, in 2011.

"I really think the more people in Florida focus on their own backyards, and those groups who’ve had success share their resources with the group making progress, the more success we’re going to have," said Hoch, adding the state’s organizations should continue to work together, share resources and give credit where its’ due. "There’s a lot of talent in this state and people who are passionate about making change but they really all need to work together."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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