What I have found striking in my work with GCER is how few Galesburg residents are willing to openly defend discrimination. Many support our effort to change the human relations ordinance. Many others assure me that, yes, they are against discrimination but, for some reason or another, action on the issue is not necessary. It is to this "yes, but..." contingent that I dedicate the rest of this article. The "buts" come in a variety of forms; I will address four of the more common ones.
1. "There is no problem here in Galesburg." Some people claim that they have not heard of cases of discrimination. Others even wonder if we have gays or lesbians here in Galesburg. Of course there are gays and lesbians here in Galesburg and of course they face discrimination. The Zephyr did an excellent job of documenting this in the two "Gay in Galesburg" articles it ran several years ago. In "Gay in Galesburg Revisited" local gays and lesbians told of the indignities they faced on a daily basis. Tellingly, all insisted on anonymity. One reason many Galesburg residents are unaware of the discrimination faced by their fellow citizens is that those citizens remain in the closet out of fear. Do we really want to live in a community that intimidates its members into living a lie? Galesburg can do better.
2. "Gays and lesbians are already protected under existing law." Would that it were so. I have heard a variety of ingenious legal arguments claiming that laws against sexual harassment, laws against discrimination based on gender, or the Constitution itself already ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Whatever the merits of these arguments, this is not how our court system has interpreted the law. In Illinois and most other states it is still perfectly legal to fire someone simply because they are gay or lesbian. Our forum featured a short film entitled "Created Equal" that told the story of Cracker Barrel employee Cheryl Sommerville. She and several of her gay and lesbian co-workers were fired in 1991. Cracker Barrel publicly stated the reason for their firing: the company declared it would not employ people "whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values." Cheryl and her fellow workers had no legal recourse, nor would they have had any legal recourse had they been fired in Galesburg.
3. "Homosexuality goes against religion." In fact, religious groups and religious individuals take a wide range of positions on homosexuality. In any case, the real issue is not what one person's religion says about another person's behavior. It is whether or not we should force our religious views on each other. If I fired you because you were Jewish, or because I disagreed with your interpretation of scripture, my action would be morally wrong and illegal. If I fire you because of a religiously based disapproval of your sexual preference, my action would be just as wrong and should be illegal.
4. "Gay rights laws confer "special" rights, they mandate affirmative action plans, they protect child molesters, etc., etc., etc..." Protection from arbitrary firing is hardly a "special right." The rest of these scare stories can be dispelled in a simple manner: travel to states with gay rights laws. Ten states, including nearby Wisconsin, provide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. If leaving Illinois is too radical a step for you, try visiting the cities of Champaign, Chicago, Evanston, Oak Park or Urbana. These states and cities still prosecute child molesters and they have not forced employers to adopt affirmative action plans for gays and lesbians. What they have done is stand up for basic decency and morality by saying that all their citizens are worthy of respect and that none should be discriminated against.
It is time to turn the "yes, buts" into yeses and to make Galesburg the tolerant community it should be. The Galesburg Coalition for Equal Rights invites all those who agree with us to get involved. Come to our meetings, the first Tuesday of every month at 7 pm in the Galesburg Community Center (150 E. Simmons). If you have been discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, call the Galesburg Department of Human Services' discrimination complaints line at 345-3634. Your call is confidential and will help build a record of the discrimination that still exists in our community.