Try to think back to Oct. 20. It was a Wednesday. Do you recall seeing an increase in purple clothes worn by those around you on that day? It wasn’t a coincidence. All around the country, Americans show supported for the end of anti-gay bullying by dressing in maroon, lavender, mulberry or any other shade of purple they could find. This nation-wide action was in response to a recent string of teens and young adults who killed themselves because they were subjected to relentless bullying about their sexuality. Most notable was Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student cyber-bullied and publically embarrassed him by filming Clementi’s personal sexual experiences and posting them on YouTube.
On Oct. 26, the Omaha City Council rejected a measure 3-3 that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to anti-discrimination laws that are already on the book for age, race, color, gender, creed, religion, national origin, marital status and disability.
City Councilman Ben Gray, who proposed the ordinance, said extending the law to protect everyone was a no-brainer to him. Several states and individual cities already have the law in effect to protect gay and transgendered employees from workplace discrimination. Gray amended the proposal to exclude Omaha’s religious organizations. Councilmembers Festersen and Jerram voted in favor with Gray. Gernandt, Stothert and Mulligan voted against, and Thompson abstained from voting because he wanted the issue put to a public vote.
The Gateway would like to know why.
As students, we’re well versed in politics as well as religion. We know the facts and we’ve heard the opinions. We’re as motley a crew in our political beliefs as in our religious beliefs, with varying degrees and personal experiences that have led us to who we are today and who we want to be as citizens of this city.
And we believe that this is wrong.
We have great respect for Thompson, who is a professor here at UNO and a beacon for African-American civil liberties and business growth in Omaha. Given that, we thought he would understand the necessity of this issue to be officially and legally recognized, instead of leaving it up to the people in a public vote. Women’s rights weren’t put to a public vote in the 1920s, and neither were African-American rights during the 1960s. If they had been, the popular opinion of the time never would have let them have equal rights.
Many people have argued that sexual orientation isn’t relevant because it shouldn’t or doesn’t come up in the workplace, but how realistic is that? Personal life is a part of the workplace with every family photo placed upon a desk or water cooler discussion about the kids.
Others have said their religious beliefs lead them to believe this isn’t necessary or wanted. The Gateway agrees, but to a point. Because separation of church and state is one of the founding principles of our country, we believe religion should not play a part in any governmental decision.
Whether or not being gay is a choice or against religious beliefs is not the issue at hand. This all boils down to one group of people deciding that another group of people shouldn’t be equal in the eyes of the law. For those who do believe in the Golden Rule – as we do- this couldn’t be a more direct violation.
Still more at the meeting said this will be bad for businesses, but then gave no evidence to back this. The dozens of cities and states in the United States (including Iowa) that have adopted this language seem to be doing just fine.
Hundreds of people attended the five-hour long meeting and even more called in to express their opinions. The majority of people who called in were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and spouses, many of whom told stories of how they or people they know had been fired because of their sexual orientation.
UNO’s students were right there in the mix on Tuesday night, too.
“I encouraged people in the group to go out and get involved with the measure being passed by the city of Omaha,” said Jonathan von Kampen, UNO sophomore and president of UNO’s Queers and Allies. “There was a rally outside the offices on Tuesday, so I told a lot of people to try and go to that. Even things like writing the offices or calling in were helpful.”
UNO is one of the many colleges across the United States are beginning to face the issue of how communities view sexuality.
Chris Armstrong, student body president at the University of Michigan, who is openly gay, was harassed online for months by UM alumnus and Assistant State Attorney General Andrew Shirvell. Shirvell created a website featuring doctored photos of Armstrong and swastikas, stalked and harassed Armstrong’s family and friends on Facebook and posted online blasts about Armstrong’s “radically homosexual” agenda – an agenda worked on by his predecessors that focused primarily on student housing. Armstrong filed a restraining order against Shirvell after Shirvell began showing up in places where Armstrong or his friends were, and the University of Michigan banned Shirvell from the campus.
After months of silence, Armstrong appeared on “Anderson Cooper 360” and spoke with The Michigan Daily newspaper to discuss the situation and to speak up for students who have been bullied.
“I will not back down,” Armstrong told the paper. “I will not flinch. I will not falter. I will not succumb to any unwarranted attacks. What I will do is I will carry on with the utmost pride and vindication.”
If the students of the University of Michigan can fight for their rights, then so can we. And when the people we look up to as leaders in our city let us down, we have the right to say something about it. Frankly, it scares us that we even have to, after we’ve had friends and family who stood before this city and showed and shared horrors stories similar to Armstrong’s.
“When it comes down to it, sexual orientation and gender identity don’t affect how you do your job,” said von Kampen. “It doesn’t matter where you go to the bathroom or who you sleep with at night. Sex, race or religion shouldn’t be related to your job performance.”
UNO students donned purple to speak out against the bullying, and they celebrated Coming Out Day earlier this month to celebrate our sexual and gender differences. For weeks, we have talked about the proposal in class, online, at work and at home.
After Monday’s decision, we watched as dozens of students updated their Facebook statuses and Twitter feeds. Many straight students expressed outrage that their friends and family have been officially been deemed unworthy of legal protection. Gay students posted sayings such as: “I’m glad my city doesn’t care about my rights as an equal citizen.”
The Gateway wonders if this is the message Omaha wants to send its youth. We look at all the bullying in schools and in the community that we’ve experienced and seen, the suicides of students out-of-state and the blood and tears our friends and family have shed over poor legal protection here and wonder when enough is going to be enough.
When will our representatives look beyond the next election campaign, consider the protection of all of their citizens and make it OK for us to live without fear?
The council will vote again next Tuesday about whether the proposal should be added to a public ballot.
Councilmen, we’re eagerly waiting to hear to your response.