Tired of state roadblocks, S.C. Equality seeks municipal traction 

Gay Rights Go Local

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The effort to protect gays and the transgendered from discrimination in housing and accommodations has had at least one enthusiastic Statehouse supporter: Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston). Ford first introduced legislation to expand the state's Fair Housing law to include sexual orientation four years ago, but there's never been a vote and he's yet to garner one co-sponsor.

But it's a different story on the other end of Main Street in Columbia, where council members voted unanimously last year to insert such language into the city's housing ordinance.

South Carolina Equality, a Columbia-based group that worked with the city to craft the amendment, is now using a $25,000 grant to seek out similar anti-discrimination reforms by bypassing the stalled Statehouse and instead going to where the ball is actually moving — cities and towns.

Gay-inclusive local ordinances and corporate policies almost always pre-date state level reforms, says Ray Drew, S.C. Equality's executive director.

"The state legislature is going to be your last agent of change," he says. Awarded through a collaboration by the Gill and HAAF foundations and an unnamed private donor, the South Carolina grant was one of five handed out to groups working toward these changes — including similar efforts in Virginia and Georgia.

Considering the resources spent in other states to fight for marriage equality, Drew says the grant was a effort to put money in states where marriage wasn't an option.

It's not known which cities S.C. Equality will be targeting for reform. Charleston's anti-discrimination policy for city employees includes gays, but the local Fair Housing Ordinance lists only "race, color, religion, sex, physical or mental handicap, familial status, or national origin" as protected classes.

In Columbia, S.C. Equality worked quietly behind the scenes, collecting support from key councilmen, particularly among its more conservative members. The courting was in private, but deliberations were very much in public, with two separate votes of the full council and a public hearing.

"We didn't do big rallies or press releases," Drew says.

Including "gender identity" was questioned early on, but the group knew it could win enough support even if there turned out to be one or two members with reservations. There's been no backlash in the year since the vote, Drew says, and S.C. Equality plans to take a similarly hushed approach to its efforts in other cities.

"Most South Carolinians don't object to equality," Drew says. "There is a small faction in the state that can become very loud in opposing these simple equality measures."

A similarly discreet effort was made by local gay advocates from the Alliance for Full Acceptance when they approached the City of Charleston a few years ago to include gays in the city's employment policy, says Warren Redman-Gress, AFFA's executive director.

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  • Drew

"Going through a very public approach could have ended it completely," he says.

S.C. Equality's efforts are encouraging, Redman-Gress says, considering that the prospect of local change is often something that gay activists overlook.

"We really do tend to think about how we can change the state as opposed to how we can change Charleston," he says.

Dan Carrigan knows the feeling. He heads up Smoke-Free South Carolina's efforts to end smoking in the workplace, including bars and restaurants.

"For decades, the smoke-free movement was stalled in South Carolina," he says. So the group went local and started educating city and town council members.

"They're closer to home and they are more accessible to the constituents and not insulated like they are in Columbia," he says.

In the past few years, Smoke-Free S.C. has helped establish local ordinances in 26 municipalities, impacting more than 1 million residents. And as the communities continue to pass these ordinances, hope grows in the Statehouse.

"States with comprehensive laws started off with a strong number of local ordinances," Carrigan says. "The state law happens when the ordinances are no longer a novelty — when they've become the norm."

An important factor for Carrigan was finding a local advocate who understands the issue.

"It's difficult to go into a community that doesn't know you," he says.

Legislative challenges to the local smoke-free ordinances, led by tobacco industry lobbyists, are now running into the same roadblocks that stalled progress on statewide reforms in the first place — home rule. It's the sense that local governing bodies should be able to determine their own destiny, and it carries a lot of weight in South Carolina.

This kind of responsibility can serve as a selling point to local councilmen, says Redman-Gress, by appealing to the role of local elected leaders as the first step for substantive reform.

"If you can convince a city council or county council member that this is right, they have the capability to lead on a human rights issue," he says.

Local gay rights measures have faced challenges in the past few months. Kalamazoo, Mich., repealed a month-old ordinance in January due to opposition. The measure seeking to outlaw discrimination in housing and employment is now going through a lengthy public comment period. But residents in Gainesville, Fla., supported a similar measure when put to a vote last week, rejecting opposition by conservatives who painted it as a dangerous ordinance that would let men use ladies restrooms.

But both of those cases included broader employment protections, while S.C. Equality is focusing on housing and public accommodations.

"I look at it as the building blocks," Drew says. "(Fair Housing) is the easiest to get passed and it's quite significant."

Protection against workplace discrimination is a priority, but Drew is hopeful that can be addressed on the federal level, where the new administration has spurred hope for change.

City of Columbia's Fair Housing Ordinance

It is the policy of the City of Columbia, South Carolina, that no person shall be discriminated against in the sale or rental of housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, familial status, handicap, disability, or sexual orientation.


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