Freedom Oklahoma directs focus on municipalities and LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances 

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In a majority of Oklahoma cities, same-sex couples can legally get married, but they are still at risk of being denied services and could be fired simply for their sexual orientation.

Outside Norman, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples buying or renting a home could be confronted with several forms of discrimination that married heterosexual couples do not face.

In the event the LGBT community was targeted with an act of violence, the state’s hate crime law would not apply. Oklahoma is one of 14 states with a hate crime law that doesn’t cover sexual orientation or gender identity.

These are the realities that LGBT Oklahomans deal with every day. Advocates and organizations like Freedom Oklahoma focus on advancing nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community with an end goal to protect all LGBT people from discrimination in housing, the workplace and public spaces.

“When people ask, ‘Why?’ I think what we’ve seen over the last few days is a real indicator of why,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, a statewide political LGBT rights advocacy organization.

He spoke to Oklahoma Gazette four days after an attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

“When you have a minority group who are targeted by hate crimes and violence, it is the duty of the government and elected officials to step up and show respect to that community,” he said. “I don’t think a city can protect everyone, but they can show a level of equality and acceptance through ordinances that can be a support rather than a source of discrimination.”

In a state that witnessed an unprecedented number of anti-LGBT bills presented during the last legislative session, is there any hope for the equality movement? While state lawmakers proposed harmful legislation toward the LGBT community, the state’s largest cities have reviewed and enacted protections for LGBT residents.

Norman City Council extended its city’s civil rights protections to include sexual identity and sexual orientation in late December. The ordinance enumerates LGBT protections in employment, housing and public accommodations. Five months ago, Oklahoma City Council added protections for LGBT citizens to its housing discrimination ordinance. Tulsa passed a similar measure in 2015.

Oklahoma’s largest cities are in line with the rest of the country as the Human Rights Campaign reports a record number of American cities have equal rights policies. Norman, Tulsa and Oklahoma City aren’t alone in their strides toward nondiscrimination laws and relationship-building with the LGBT community. The Human Rights Campaign’s 2015 Municipal Equality Index pointed out Louisville, Kentucky, and Bloomington, Indiana, moved forward with ordinances despite unfriendly LGBT legislation at the state level.

Work ahead

OKC housing protections were the first step for Freedom Oklahoma in efforts to work with city leaders on LGBT issues.

Now, Freedom Oklahoma is pushing for an ordinance outlawing discrimination in employment and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Stevenson argues many people don’t fully understand what types of nondiscrimination protections are or aren’t law.

“If an employer said as bluntly as they could, ‘You’re gay and you’re fired,’ regardless of how someone feels about the community, I think they would be outraged,” Stevenson said. “I think the community would be shocked to find out [employment protections] aren’t in place.”

Oklahoma is an “employment-at-will” state, which means employers can fire someone for any or no reason. However, federal anti-discrimination laws prohibit termination based on race, color, national origin, mental or physical disability, age, sex, genetic history or military services. Sexual orientation and gender identity are absent from the list.

There’s no way to know the exact number of people terminated because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In Oklahoma, some companies — including ONEOK, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, Devon Energy Corporation and Williams Companies — adopt discriminations prohibitions in their employment policies, according to Equality Forum, an LGBT civil rights advocacy group that studies Fortune 500 companies’ employment policies.

Without a public accommodation ordinance, LGBT citizens can be refused service at medical offices, hotels, theaters, restaurants, retail stores, public transit and more. Public accommodation provisions are essential, and without such measures, the LGBT community can be excluded from participating in society and commerce, argued Stevenson.

Freedom Oklahoma plans to approach other municipalities in the metro and across the state to encourage placement of full human rights ordinances or protections in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Rights conversation

A call for an Oklahoma City human rights commission is part of Freedom Oklahoma’s efforts. Oklahoma City Council abolished its commission in 1996. Reestablishing a commission would allow commissioners to review complaints lodged against violations to the city’s housing discrimination ordinance as well as other civil rights grievances.

OKC is one of the largest cities in the nation without a commission, which is frequently noted by Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid during council meetings.

The idea of reinstating the human rights commission was briefly mentioned during the June 14 council meeting, just days after the June 12 shooting in Orlando.

Shadid proposed the commission operate as a mediator for resolving human rights issues.

“It would be a very symbolic act in this particular time to establish a human rights commission,” Shadid said.

(Cover by Erin DeMoss / Oklahoma Gazette)

(Cover by Erin DeMoss / Oklahoma Gazette)

Print Headline: Local steps, Freedom Oklahoma directs its focus on municipalities and nondiscrimination ordinances. 

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