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Amy Dalrymple, Published March 19 2009

Sexual orientation rights bill gets large turnout

BISMARCK – Gay and lesbian North Dakotans shouldn’t have to fear losing their jobs if they display pictures of loved ones at work, a Fargo legislator said Wednesday.

Senate Bill 2278 would eliminate the need many residents feel to hide their personal lives from employers, said Sen. Tom Fiebiger, the bill’s prime sponsor.

Supporters and opponents of the bill lined up to testify during a more than two-hour hearing before the House Human Services Committee.

The bill seeks to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, credit transaction and use of public accommodation.

Opponents said the bill would have unintended consequences and argued that sexual orientation is a choice, unlike race or other characteristics that fall under protected classes.

Others said the bill is part of a larger agenda to make homosexuality part of the mainstream.

A concern raised often by opponents was that the bill allows transgender individuals to use public restrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

Several, including Tom Frier of the North Dakota Family Alliance, said sexual predators would take advantage of that protection and target women and children in restrooms.

Committee member Rep. Kari Conrad, D-Minot, asked several times if people fear using the restrooms in Minnesota, which already has such a law.

The testimony from some opponents about sexual orientation elicited shaking heads and gasps at times, with at least five audience members walking out of the hearing.

The biggest reaction came after Fargo resident Martin Wishnatsky used some graphic language to describe sexual intercourse between same-sex partners.

Mitch Marr, executive director for the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, asked legislators to consider the widespread support the bill has received, particularly from young people. The North Dakota Student Association that represents 42,000 students gave the bill a unanimous endorsement.

North Dakota State University student Mike Lindemann said if the bill doesn’t pass, he feels he’ll have to leave the state when he graduates, as do many others who don’t have protection.

Bill supporter Sherri Paxon, a Bismarck-Mandan resident, said she lived in a “climate of fear” at one job and edited her conversations so co-workers wouldn’t learn her sexual orientation.

When she stopped hiding, she was harassed and bullied in the workplace until she quit because she had no legal recourse, Paxon said.

Chairman Robin Weisz, R-Fessenden, said the committee will discuss the bill Monday and likely make a recommendation. It could be considered by the full House next week.

The Senate approved the bill 27-19. Weisz anticipates the vote will be closer in the House.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590