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Human Rights Commission scores for LGBT equality in Norman, but questions rise in OKC

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Community members, along with representatives of Norman United and Freedom Oklahoma, work with the Norman Human Rights Commission to create a resolution calling for the protections of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens in Norman. The resolution passed the Norman City Council on Dec. 22. - PHOTO BY LAURA EASTES
  • Photo by Laura Eastes
  • Community members, along with representatives of Norman United and Freedom Oklahoma, work with the Norman Human Rights Commission to create a resolution calling for the protections of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens in Norman. The resolution passed the Norman City Council on Dec. 22.

Thunderous applause erupted after the nine-member Norman City Council unanimously voted to extend the city’s civil rights protections to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

Following the Dec. 22 vote, supporters — many dressed in red T-shirts with the words “Standing together for an inclusive Norman” on them — exchanged hugs. Others wiped away tears.

The historic resolution was decades in the making and picked up speed following the U.S. Supreme Court’s October 2014, ruling that recognized same-sex marriage, said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, a statewide political LGBT rights advocacy organization.

“Norman has shown itself to be a leader in the state of Oklahoma and set the bar high for other cities,” Stevenson said.

He also shared Freedom’s plans to push for similar resolutions in cities across the state.

“We look forward to the state of Oklahoma seeing what is happening and passing protections for all Oklahomans,” he said.

The resolution updates Norman’s discrimination policy, which was passed in 1986 and prohibits discrimination against race, color, religion, ancestry, sex, national origin, age, place of birth, disability and family status. Norman Mayor Cindy Rosenthal’s signature officially added sexual orientation and gender identity to that policy.

Before the vote, Rosenthal, who leads the state’s third largest city, said the resolution also recognized equal rights for LGBT residents regarding employment, housing and visits to restaurants, shops and entertainment venues.

“This resolution is of historical significance because we are reaffirming this community’s commitment to the value of inclusiveness in the lives of our citizens,” she said. “All citizens can enjoy the opportunity to participate equally in the social and economic life of this city.”

While the resolution received support from Freedom Oklahoma and grassroots community coalition Norman United, it was the City of Norman’s Human Rights Commission that brought the issue to the council’s attention. The group meets quarterly and advocates for fair employment and economic and social rights of citizens.

Following the human rights commission’s October meeting, city attorneys drafted a resolution to update code to include LGBT protections. Stevenson attended the October meeting and the council’s Dec. 8 conference, where the issue was introduced. From his experience, successful implementation and enforcement of LGBT protections often begins with a human rights commission, which works to prevent and eliminate discrimination.

Among the state’s largest cities, Norman, Tulsa and Lawton have formed such commissions.

“This exact process wouldn’t be possible in Oklahoma City because there is no human rights commission,” Stevenson said. “There is a lot of work to be done.”

Defunct commissions

In 1988, Oklahoma City reestablished its Human Rights Commission after a burning cross was erected on the property of a northeast OKC church and local Jewish temples were vandalized with graffiti, according to 1990s-era news reports.

The commission worked with a coordinator to conduct mediation for residents involved in human rights disputes.

In 1993, its duties were reduced from mediation to education, which included presenting at civil rights-related community forums. In the mid-1990s, the group was met with resistance when it advocated for recognizing protection of sexual orientation. In January 1996, Oklahoma City Council abolished the commission.

At the state level, after 50 years of service, the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission, which promoted civil rights laws and investigated complaints of discriminations, also was abolished. The commission’s duties were transferred to the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office.

OKC considerations

Questions surrounding OKC’s lack of a human rights commission emerged during the city council’s Dec. 8 meeting. At that time, municipal counselor’s office attorneys introduced a revision to the city’s housing discrimination ordinance.

The amendment calls for banning discrimination based on certain classes, including disability, age and familial status, specifically families with children.

Currently, it is illegal for a landlord or real estate agent to discriminate against a person based on factors relating to race, color, sex, religion, national origin and ancestry.

Proposed changes would reflect protections provided under the federal Fair Housing Act, enacted as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Requested by the city’s planning department, adoption would qualify the city for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants.

For one council member, however, the amendment wouldn’t go far enough to protect residents from discrimination when buying, renting or financing a home.

Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid wants lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender classes recognized in the housing discrimination ordinance. City attorneys said that a floor amendment specifically addressing LGBT protections will be added during the final hearing at Tuesday’s city council meeting. The council also is expected to vote on the ordinance then.

In April, Tulsa City Council members reviewed and unanimously approved a similar amendment adding sexual orientation and gender identify as protected classes to that city’s fair housing ordinance.

Additionally, the proposed change to Oklahoma City’s ordinance supports the current practice in which city staff collect complaints and forward them to the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office.

An Oklahoma City human rights commission would allow commissioners to review complaints and recommend solutions, but it would lack an “enforcement arm.” If recommendations weren’t followed, a complainant would be forwarded to state attorney general’s staff, said Cindy Richard, Oklahoma City deputy municipal counselor.

Ward 7 Councilman John Pettis Jr. supported the efficacy of the current system, saying a recent attorney general’s office investigation resulted in civil action against a landlord accused of harassing female tenants for sexual favors.

“I think the system currently in place works,” Pettis said. “I would love to see a human rights commission, but if we are not going to properly fund it, what’s the point? If we are not going to make sure we have staff in place, what’s the point?”

Shadid requested city staff research the role of human rights commissions in other cities and present an update to the city council regarding the history of the city’s human rights commission.

Stephenson said the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the housing discrimination ordinance is just the beginning of Freedom Oklahoma’s advocacy efforts in Oklahoma City. Reestablishing human rights commissions also is a priority.

He also said OKC is one of the largest cities in the nation without a commission.

“It does work in other cities, not just for the LGBT community, but other minority communities,” Stevenson said. “Having that resource to air a grievance to a municipality is vital, and it really helps minority communities feel like they have a voice in the city.”

Freedom Oklahoma is not alone. Priya Desai, president of the Oklahoma chapter of the United Nations Association of Oklahoma City, believes a human rights commission would be a positive measure for the city.

“The residents of Oklahoma City would benefit from a human rights commission to investigate complaints of discrimination, monitor compliance with equal employment and fair housing laws and promote equity and inclusion in the delivery of city services,” she said.

Print Headline: Equal time, A Human Rights Commission scores for LGBT equality in Norman, but questions rise as OKC considers housing a discrimination amendment.

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