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Ryan Johnson, Published February 02 2013

Johnson: ND’s legal protections have a gap

I could be fired for writing this column. I could find myself evicted and homeless without warning. Worst of all, I’d have no way of doing anything about it.

Why? I am gay, and while this one aspect doesn’t unilaterally define me, it makes me an easy target for discrimination – discrimination that is perfectly legal in North Dakota.

I also am lucky enough to work for a company that won’t fire me because I’m gay, and I rent from a landlord who won’t kick me out because my partner and I live together.

What’s important about this issue, beyond not having legal protections from discrimination, is the message this lack of support sends to me and the other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who call North Dakota home.

It’s a simple message, even if it goes unspoken: If you’re an LGBT person and you think you’re entitled to basic protections from blatant discrimination, you should move to another state. It’s a message I hear time and again.

But why should I be forced to move from the state where I was born and raised, where I went to college and started my career? Why can’t I stay here and have the same access to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that everyone else has, and know my success won’t be limited by the gender of the person I love?

And how does granting me equal legal protections harm anyone else, heterosexual or not?

North Dakota isn’t alone. The Human Rights Campaign says North Dakota is one of 29 states that doesn’t prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and one of 34 states that doesn’t outlaw losing a job on the basis of gender identity. The federal government doesn’t offer these protections, either.

But we have a chance to address the problem. Legislators are considering bipartisan-sponsored Senate Bill 2252, which would amend the state’s discrimination laws and make it illegal to be fired or evicted because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

A similar bill passed the state Senate in 2009 but was killed in the House by a 54-34 vote. The Forum quoted Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, as explaining that his opposition came down to the “big difference between a behavior and a lifestyle and something you don’t have a choice in.”

That’s ironic logic considering that people here already are protected from discrimination because of things they chose. It’s illegal to be evicted or fired based on your religion or marital status, for example, and familial status is a protected category against housing discrimination – all statuses we fall into because of the choices we make.

And I have no problem with that. It just makes sense to protect people from having their lives disrupted or ruined because they have a kid, or not; because they’re Lutheran, or Jewish, or atheist; because they’re divorced, or married.

It also makes sense to prevent discrimination for things we can’t control. We don’t get to choose the color of our skin, we can’t decide if we will have a disability, and I wasn’t given a choice if I would be attracted to women or men. I was born gay, just like heterosexual people didn’t choose their attraction to the opposite sex.

All I ask is legislators consider one thing: Whether or not this bill passes, I’ll still be gay. And we’ll still have thousands of LGBT residents just wanting a chance to work hard, support their families and contribute their share of taxes to the state that belongs to all of us, not just straight people.

Beyond the threat of this unchecked discrimination, what’s at stake is the message we’ll send to these friends, neighbors, co-workers and relatives who can’t rely on their government to protect them. Is it really too much for each and every one of us – LGBT or not – to have the same equal shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

Reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587 or rmjohnson@forumcomm.com