Issue April 18, 2006

Does Ernie Fletcher hate gay people?

Last week the governor issued an executive order removing gays from the state’s anti-discrimination policy. Smells like bigotry to us.

On the cover of the Nov. 18, 1998 issue of LEO, there’s a photograph of Alicia Pedreira and her then-partner. Pedreira’s white A-shirt shows the outline of an island with the words “Isle of Lesbos.”

Pedreira had been a counselor with the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children in Louisville, highly recruited in fact. The black-and-white photograph, taken by an amateur photographer after an AIDS walk, was later entered in a contest at the Kentucky State Fair. Someone with ties to KBHC saw it, and before long, Pedreira was fired, not for poor performance — she’d received good reviews from her employer up till then — but because of her sexual orientation.

Certainly any gay person in these parts can’t be surprised over such blatant bigotry from a religious organization. It seems to go with the territory. The Pedreira case became significant, however, because KBHC was receiving substantial state funding. But Louisville had yet to pass its long-debated Fairness ordinance, and she had no formal protection. Fairness foes had long asserted that no such protections were necessary because no one had actually been fired due to sexual orientation. The Pedreira case provided the clearest refutation to date, the smoking gun, as it were.

Pedreira, now in her early 40s, lives in Miami. She prefers not to discuss the experience, Darnell Johnson, organizational manager for the Fairness Campaign, told LEO. He visited her recently.

Her case comes to mind anew in the wake of last week’s big announcement out of Frankfort. Last Tuesday, Gov. Ernie Fletcher — himself a lay Baptist minister who holds daily prayer meetings with some of his staff — issued an executive order amending the non-discrimination policy that applies to the roughly 34,000 employees of state government. He extracted the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” from the list of those protected, less than a month after the General Assembly failed to pass a bill that would’ve required its approval of local anti-discrimination laws (and would have effectively killed Fairness ordinances in Louisville, Lexington and Covington).

The reexamination is part of a routine update to the affirmative action policy as required by the federal government, according to Fletcher spokesman Brett Hall, who chafed when asked about the Governor’s order. The policy that applied until last week — initiated by the Paul Patton administration in 2003 — met the fed’s requirements just fine. It protected homosexual and transgender people from job discrimination based on those characteristics.

Why the change, then?
“What we wanted to do was unencumber the Commonwealth from lawsuits and other actions based on issues that don’t pertain to protected minorities such as women, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians,” Hall said. He said the Fletcher administration took public comment during the past year from minority groups, women’s advocates and employees, but no gay rights groups.

The change will affect state workers only. For a state worker living in Louisville, Lexington or Covington, state policy supersedes any local laws. The state does have an adjudication process if an employee claims harassment; however, gays no longer have legal protection as such.

Ultimately, the logic behind the decision is flimsy. Hall asserts that there are difficulties and confusion for transgender people using restrooms in state facilities. He said the state might have to pay for new bathrooms specifically for transgenders.

The thinking behind that argument is ridiculous, said Johnson, of the Fairness Campaign. The most likely explanation for the change is simple and familiar: bigotry.

Along with his Baptist ministry, the Governor has been involved with several right-wing extremist groups that operate under the religion flag. As originally reported in March by Mark Nickolas on his political blog “Bluegrass Report,” Fletcher served on the board of the Coalition of Christians in Kentucky in the 1990s, during which time he suggested that criminalizing sodomy would protect people from getting AIDS. He was also involved with Pro-Family Kentucky, a team of zealots who worked to smear a judicial candidate in 1991 for declaring the state’s sodomy law unconstitutional.

Although these debates don’t necessarily always originate with organized religion, it’s often the case that God is invoked. And the discourse consistently hangs on the phrase “special rights.” The Religious Right typically accuses gays of wanting special treatment and insists there are no extenuating circumstances that might require such treatment.

Supporters of gay rights tend to view the issue as a civil rights matter and say they just want fair treatment, period. Johnson said while many frame the issue as “gay rights,” it requires a wider scope.

“It’s not special protection we’re seeking,” he said. “If everyone was treated equally and fairly, there wouldn’t be a need to put specific language that refers to one’s orientation or identity. But because one’s orientation and identity keep them away from living full, inclusive and good lives, that’s why the language needs to be there.”

Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com