Guest Commentary

LGBT Missourians deserve equal playing field under the law

Brenda Bethman and Ken Novak of The Star’s Missouri Influencers panel
Brenda Bethman and Ken Novak of The Star’s Missouri Influencers panel

It is rare for the vast majority of the panelists participating in the Missouri Influencer series to agree — but this past week, we did.

The Influencers who replied to The Star’s survey on the need for LGBTQ protections at the state level almost all answered that some sort of protections are needed.

Why such consensus? Simply put, because it’s the right thing to do.

According to the Movement Advancement Project — an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit that researches lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equity — there are a little over 160,000 LGBTQ Missourians. That means they make up approximately 3.4 percent of the adult population in the state.

While some municipalities have non-discrimination laws, many LGBTQ Missourians — people who work, pay taxes and otherwise contribute to the state — can be legally fired or denied housing. They can be refused as foster and adoptive parents. Their partners may be denied health care or survivor benefits. They can be denied essential services simply for being who they are where they live.

When it comes to the youngest residents of our state, there are no protections specifically for LGBTQ students. This in turn allows for young people to be bullied in school for being who they are. And schools cannot do anything to prevent it.

Those in the LGBTQ community may technically enjoy full status as U.S. citizens, but maneuvering through their day-to-day functioning in society can be difficult, and often they have no legal recourse when they face barriers. When this happens, those in the LGBTQ community experience secondary victimization — not unlike how people who identify with other protected groups experience hate crimes.

This lack of protective laws for LGBTQ people earned the state of Missouri a low score from the Movement Advancement Project, contrasting starkly with some other Midwestern states such as Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.

But why? One reason state protections may be underdeveloped here is because this community is less visible than other protected classes. This impacts the urgency to advocate for LGBTQ rights. The fact that someone we meet is female, elderly, a member of a racial minority or disabled (although not always) may be apparent. But individuals in the LGBTQ community are more likely to move through society unnoticed.

This invisibility translates to less of a sense of urgency for lawmakers to act, and for citizens to fight on their behalf.

The political officials we choose to send to Jefferson City determines who deserves protection and who does not. Failure to act on the behalf of the LGBTQ community and failure to demand social equality is shameful. It lacks progressive thought. And in the end, it is just wrong.

Without enhanced state protections, LGBTQ Missourians live constantly with the looming threat of job loss, housing discrimination and other possible acts of unfairness, forcing them to choose between risk and hiding an essential part of themselves.

This is no way for a state to treat the people who live here. And we need to recognize that isn’t how we already operate for other aspects of identity such as race, sex or age. Missouri can and must do better.

Brenda Bethman is director of the UMKC Women’s Center. Ken Novak is professor of criminal justice and criminology at UMKC. Both are members of The Star’s Missouri Influencers panel.