At a recent Olathe City Council meeting, 12-year-old Jak Guimbellot got up to ask something he’s thought about for years.
“I just don’t understand why if I’m with my mothers and we decide to go to a restaurant to eat, that we can be denied access and have to eat somewhere else,” Jak said.
It’s a question his mother Kate Guimbellot said she’s never been able to answer. And it’s a question at the heart of a years-long debate throughout Johnson County and the Kansas City area, as the LGBTQ community pleads for cities to adopt ordinances protecting them against discrimination.
More cities, counties and school districts have been passing nondiscrimination ordinances in recent months. They aim to protect the LGBTQ community from being denied housing, employment or services from businesses because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I support your faith. I support your church and your choice. All I’m asking is to have the same protections as you,” Kate Guimbellot told The Star last week. “Please don’t react out of fear. Please understand that all we want is equal rights. I want to be able to eat where I want to eat, shop where I want to shop, work and live, the same as everyone around us.”
City halls throughout the region have hosted marathon meetings debating LGBTQ protections. While some Johnson County cities have been quick to adopt nondiscrimination ordinances, the largest cities have lagged behind.
In August, though, both Leawood and Shawnee ratified ordinances. On Wednesday, Overland Park will consider passing protections, with Lenexa expected to follow in the fall. But Olathe is moving slower.
On the Missouri side, Kansas City and Jackson County have passed nondiscrimination ordinances.
Opponents often cite fears about the statutes limiting religious freedom and adding an unnecessary burden on taxpayers as cities would be responsible for handling discrimination complaints and lawsuits. Some have argued local municipalities should not be tasked with enforcing such an ordinance.
But without federal or state protections in either Kansas or Missouri, for now, state Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, said it’s up to local governments to ban LGBTQ discrimination.
“I’m proud of municipalities that have gone above and beyond in a political environment and in an election year to pass this,” said Woodard, who is one of the first openly gay legislators in Kansas, along with state Rep. Susan Ruiz and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids. He announced his reelection campaign last week. “It’s an important message that these policies send. For people concerned about the fact they can still be fired or refused business because of who they are, this says, ‘You’re welcome here, we see you and we value you.’”
‘It’s tearing our city apart’
The fight to convince the Olathe City Council to vote on a nondiscrimination ordinance has lasted nearly three years, said Brett Hoedl, chair of Equality Kansas Metro Kansas City chapter.
Olathe residents watch as neighboring cities adopt policies in a matter of months. And every two weeks, they show up to council meetings, using the public comment period to voice their opinions on whether protections are needed.
Meetings have become more contentious, as dozens of people, both for and against the ordinance, loudly voice their concerns.
“We’re going to keep speaking each month until you at least do what you’re elected to do and make a decision,” resident Veronica Malone told the council at a recent meeting. “Right or wrong. We might hate the decision, but not dealing with it is worse.”
Proponents first approached the Olathe City Council in late 2016, asking for a local statute because federal and Kansas laws banning discrimination on the basis of race, religion and other factors do not protect LGBTQ rights.
In March, the Olathe school board voted to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the district’s nondiscrimination policies.
Overland Park officials said the issue will finally be up for discussion at the Community Development Committee meeting on Wednesday. Following Leawood, Shawnee became the biggest city in the county to pass protections. And Lenexa officials have been directed to draft an ordinance that should be put up for a council vote this fall.
“I’m really disappointed and I’m really dejected now,” Guimbellot said. “Olathe is a leader when it comes to recycling, education and so many other things that make us progressive and forward-thinking. I don’t understand the hesitance there. If you’re going to say ‘no’ to an ordinance, then by God, just go do it. But hanging on with no plan and no feedback is just unconscionable. It is becoming divisive. It is tearing our city apart. It’s creating a huge chasm in our community, and it’s heartbreaking.”
City officials have argued if they do pass a policy, complaints could pour in, costing the city money to investigate an issue that should be left up to the state — echoing the concerns residents have voiced in opposition to a nondiscrimination ordinance.
Is it needed?
Residents opposed to cities passing LGBTQ protections often argue the same point.
“I say this is a solution searching for a problem,” Tony Gillette, chair of the Northwest Johnson County Republicans, said at a Shawnee City Council meeting before the ordinance passed.
Many have argued claims are based on emotion, and there have been few cases of actual discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
A January study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law reported the extent if the problem in Kansas: In a 2015 survey, 38% of transgender respondents from Kansas reported experiencing workplace harassment or mistreatment, 15% reported losing a job and 29% reported being denied employment because of their gender identity.
In addition, 22% said they’ve experienced discrimination in housing, while 29% reported being discriminated against or harassed at a place of public accommodation.
“People keep saying that this is a solution searching for a problem, and that is like sticking your head in the sand,” Guimbellot said. “That goes to show people who believe that don’t have LGBTQ people in their lives.”
Several reports of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ population have been publicized, including in Kansas and Missouri. In February, Michael Hill, a teacher in the northeast Kansas town of Seneca, decided to leave the state because he received threatening letters after he came out as gay last year. One letter read, “Queers will burn and so will you.”
Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor who has family ties to Kansas City, claims his rights were violated when his employer fired him because he is gay. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled in his favor. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the case in October.
Guimbellot said Johnson County is not immune to discrimination. She and Hoedl both shared stories of friends who claim they were fired or denied housing because of their identities. Guimbellot also said she has received hate mail.
“Was that discrimination? No. It didn’t keep us from working and living. But we are very well aware of the fact that there are restaurants we would not choose to go to,” she said.
The Kansas study also showed economic disparities related to discrimination of the LGBTQ community.
“Definitely LGBT people are more vulnerable to stigma and discrimination, and there are some negative economic outcomes that are related to experiencing discrimination,” said Christy Mallory, director of State Policy and Education Initiatives at the Williams Institute. “They are often lower income, have more food insecurity, are less likely to have health insurance and have higher unemployment rates.”
Mallory said state ordinances would be the most effective and far-reaching in addressing discrimination, but local policies can offer remedies.
Should it fall on municipalities?
Last week, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt signed on to a brief, joining 13 other Republicans in arguing that federal law does not protect LGBTQ citizens from workplace discrimination.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the issue in October. Woodard is encouraging Kansas to “get ahead of the game” and expand the state’s anti-discrimination law before the court issues its decision.
“Regardless of the Supreme Court case, it’s going to be more political to pass something after that case,” he said.
In her first official action after taking office, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in January signed an executive order banning state agencies from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity when deciding whether to hire, promote, discipline or fire employees. But a push to expand the state’s anti-discrimination laws went nowhere.
“This is something that Kansas needs to do now,” Woodard said. “Kansas is missing out on an opportunity because of it.”
Earlier this year, the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, or MONA, failed in the General Assembly for the 21st consecutive time.
Mallory said expanding the Kansas Act Against Discrimination would provide or strengthen protections for around 72,600 LGBTQ adults, including 56,000 workers. A 2013 study by the Williams Institute showed 160,000 adults in Missouri would benefit from protections.
And she said state policies would likely be the most effective in prohibiting discrimination.
“Generally, local governments have more limited powers than the state government itself, but these local ordinances do fill in where state law is not protecting people from discrimination adequately,” she said. “But they can only protect people within the city limits, and many of them lack enforcement agencies or offer remedies. And many also don’t provide the option to go to court like the state law does.”
Cities throughout the Kansas City area have a variety of nondiscrimination ordinances, although many use the same language. Some impose civil penalties of either $500 of $1,000 for each violation. Under the ordinance in Manhattan, Kansas, Assistant City Manager Jared Wasinger said, if both parties cannot resolve the complaint through the city attorney’s office, they could go to municipal court.
Woodard said the “quilt of different ordinances” across Kansas is another reason the state should add protections, so policies are uniform.
But in the meantime, Mallory said local municipal ordinances “definitely can be effective.”
“They can be really important symbolically to the extent that cities are doing this and making these ordinances known,” she said. “They are showing you are in a welcoming city that doesn’t tolerate discrimination, which can have a positive effect on people. And the remedies they do have can be very effective if they’re used.”
Would it cause problems?
Many opponents have voiced concerns about cities passing nondiscrimination ordinances and then dealing with a deluge of complaints, lawsuits and needless legal fees, burdening local taxpayers.
“Anytime someone disagrees, it’s not hate speech, but that’s where we’re headed,” Mike Bickley, a pastor of Journey Bible Church in Olathe, told the council in August. “You need to consider a cost analysis of what it’s going to cost the taxpayers to enforce. If this is considered hate speech, there will be a horrible amount of cases brought forward.”
In Shawnee, City Attorney Ellis Rainey told the council its ordinance only prohibits discrimination when it comes to private or public employment, the sale or lease of property, as well as the use of public accommodations and services. He reminded them that residents would still be free to express their beliefs.
Cities that passed nondiscrimination ordinances years ago, including Manhattan and Roeland Park — which was the first Johnson County city to pass one in 2014 — have not received complaints, according to officials. So far, they said, the ordinance has not been a burden.
Mallory said people might be less willing to file complaints in their hometown, fearing recrimination. At the state level, the January report estimated if protections were expanded, around 30 additional complaints would be filed each year. The report states the additional complaints could be “absorbed by the Kansas Human Rights Commission with little impact on the staff and negligible costs.”
Many residents also have voiced concerns about nondiscrimination ordinances limiting their religious freedom.
“With a stroke of a pen, nondiscrimination ordinances like this will force the business community to follow a new set of guidelines that will force businesses to violate their personal rights and convictions, turning them into criminals,” Gillette said.
The idea that citizens could lose religious freedom because of the expansion of LGBTQ rights has been a national conversation for several years, in part highlighted by bakeries denying services to gay couples wanting to purchase wedding cakes.
“(These ordinances) are not fair,” JoAnn Klaassen told the Olathe City Council at an early August meeting. “They put the burden on the ordinary everyday citizen to have heightened awareness for any potential infractions, such as using the wrong pronoun or refusing to perform a service that may be against a sincerely held belief.
“(A baker) is now facing his third lawsuit, and the person suing him asked him to make a cake with a Satan, and with an active dildo on it. That’s the result of (nondiscrimination ordinances).” National news outlets have reported that Jack Phillips, owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, has been sued for refusing to bake that cake for a same-sex couple. “Dildo cakes” quickly became a hashtag used by local LGBTQ advocates after the Olathe meeting.
Many nondiscrimination ordinances carve out exemptions for religious organizations. While businesses with more than four employees would be required to serve LGBTQ customers under Shawnee’s ordinance, it does not apply to nonprofits, private groups or churches.
Others have voiced concerns about privacy issues and sexual assault in bathrooms, again highlighting another national debate as advocates fight for expanded transgender rights.
“If you were to move forward on this, how do you protect little girls from sexual predators who will be in locker rooms, bathrooms and given the ability to shock their victims?” Gillette asked the Shawnee Council.
Rainey assured the crowd the ordinance has nothing to do with bathroom privacy, and that assault and recording in bathrooms remain illegal. He also emphasized violations of the ordinance would be civil infractions, not criminal offenses.
After being unable to answer her son’s questions about discrimination against the LGBTQ community, Guimbellot decided it was time for her 12-year-old to share his concerns with the Olathe City Council. But she had several fears about him going.
“The reason I was very concerned about Jak going, my wife as well, is because you sit in these meetings and there are horrific slurs projected toward the LGBTQ community. I don’t care for my son to hear those things said about me, that I’m a deviant or a pedophile,” she said. “But at some point, I finally said he has a right to go ask this question.”
Jak said he was a little nervous, but assuring smiles from the mayor and council members gave him the confidence to elaborate on his feelings.
“In school, we’re always taught that everyone is equal and everyone should be accepted. So it just seems silly to me that if we’re taught that in school, how do grown adults, who are supposed to be these mature people, how do they now understand this?” he said.
Discrimination has been a common dinner table conversation at the Guimbellot household, and in conversations at school with Jak’s friends. And while their own city remains one of the last in Johnson County to vote on a nondiscrimination ordinance, the family said they’ve been inspired to see other cities do so.
“Olathe has found a place in our hearts, and I believe in us,” Guimbellot said. “I believe in us as a community. I believe that we can grow together and accept each other and celebrate each other. And while on the face of it that’s not happening right now, I truly believe we’ll all do the right thing in the end.”