Dig Baton Rouge

Fighting for Fairness

In 2012, Andrew Sawyer reported that he was bullied and sexually assaulted by a group of co-workers repeatedly over the course of several weeks — all four of the attackers had their charges dropped by the Livingston Parish District Attorney.

Sawyer, a gay man, is one of many who have suffered abuse at the hands of another because he is “different.” However, he is only one of a few that have spoken up about his abuse. Many are afraid their claims will fall on deaf ears — as in Sawyer’s case. At best, their charges of abuse will reach the federal courts, which can take months or even years to reach a verdict.

“Other than Andrew Sawyer and the Sheriff-related incidents with the crimes against nature laws, we haven’t had anything reported that would rise to the level of a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance,” said David Samuels, Board Chair of Capital City Alliance. “That certainly doesn’t mean it’s not happening, just that people aren’t telling us.”

Several activist groups, including the CCA, are hoping that Baton Rouge lawmakers will move to protect all people’s rights, regardless of race, gender, age or sexual orientation, at the local level. So far Shreveport and New Orleans are the only cities in the state to adopt such laws, which effectively ban discrimination of any kind in housing, employment and public facilities. The CCA along with sister groups, like Equality Louisiana, has been appealing the metro council to adopt a similar ordinance in East Baton Rouge Parish.

“We’re certainly very impressed with what Shreveport was able to accomplish — I think that a lot of the things they were able to put in their ordinance are things we would like to see here in Baton Rouge and every city,” Samuels said. “People are contacting us and our council members, there have been letters to newspapers — it’s very much a community-based campaign.”

While this effort has only recently been making headlines, states adopting comprehensive anti-discrimination laws is nothing new.

“Of course, everyone thinks we should have this; this is not some brave new frontier of law,” said Matt Patterson, Research and Policy Coordinator for EQLA. “These are policies that hundreds of cities and counties across the country have enacted. Twenty-two states already have policies like this worked into their laws, so this isn’t something that will bring us to the future, it will bring us to the present.”

In fact, there was a resolution brought before the council that would express the city’s commitment to fairness and diversity. However, the resolution failed and even if it passed, it wouldn’t have the strength of law.

“There was a push about seven or eight years ago for the metro council to pass the One Baton Rouge resolution, but that was only a simple gesture saying ‘nice to have you here.’ It wouldn’t have changed anything. Even with that, there was a lot of backlash and it left a lot of bad feelings, which took time to fade out. It took awhile for people to stop talking about One Baton Rouge and start talking about a binding ordinance.”

Patterson explained that Shreveport’s government did not have the “bad taste in their mouth” that Baton Rouge had, and was able to pass their ordinance quickly and effectively. Another reason could be that their legislators were able to see a bigger picture than just LGBT rights.

While the LGBT is at the front of this fight, they are not the only ones who will benefit from passing a fairness ordinance.

“We don’t have a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance in Baton Rouge — that’s shocking, given the size of the city,” Samuels said. “We’re interested in something that affects not just the LGBT community, but everyone. We need protection from discrimination based on race, gender, national background and a whole list of things that should already be protected, but they aren’t.”

While the ordinance would strengthen protections of every citizen, the fact that it includes LGBT people is still a hard pill to swallow for some lawmakers. But numbers indicate that their constituents may not agree.

“Our legislature votes very conservatively and we have a conservative governor right now,” Patterson said. “Our people, however, are way beyond them. EQLA, the CCA, another non-profit called Louisiana Progress and the LSU Public Policy Research Institute jointly completed a poll last summer asking about the same protections that this ordinance will provide. Ninety percent of our people across all age groups and political persuasions support equality in these areas.”

Samuels agrees, but is optimistic that with patience and cooperation the council members against the movement will come around.

“The demand is there, but I think the political will is just starting to percolate,” Samuels said. “There’s definitely some council members who have voiced their support and there are some that can be brought to the table. I hope that they soon find the courage to support what the community supports.”

Members of the EBR metro council did not respond to phone calls or emails regarding the possibility of passing the ordinance from Dig before deadline.

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