Protests Highlight Idaho’s LGBTQ Inequalities
When former Idaho senator Nicole LeFavour was found hiding in a closet for five hours in the Boise statehouse, it could have been the set-up for a prank. Instead, it highlighted the continued efforts over the last eight years by Idaho's political establishment to stymie any discussion whatsoever about LGBTQ equality and protections in the state.
"We don't have protections of any kind; in fact, there is no mention of gay or transgender people in state law," says the openly gay LeFavour to EDGE in the days before her "closeting."
The heretofore-relative obscurity of Idaho on the national stage had the effect of insulating its lawmakers from large-scale media coverage both from within and without the state regarding LGBTQ issues. The result is one of the most backward legal environments for LGBTQ people in the country; while several municipalities, including the largest cities in the state, have brought about a quarter of the Idaho population under local protection, as a state, Idaho lags in even the most basic equal rights legislation: Though such laws were ruled unconstitutional, Idaho still retains on its books extremely punitive penalties for gay sex. In 2006, the state passed one of the most stringent anti-gay marriage bills in the country. Gay people have no state-level protections from hate crimes or bullying and LGBTQ people still face discrimination regarding employment, housing, education, public accommodation, and business services if they are outed.
When Idaho does make headlines, it is often because of social or religious extremists taking up residence in the state. In 1992, Idaho was the scene of the notorious Ruby Ridge siege between the apocalyptically religious Weaver family and government enforcement agencies. From the 1970s to 2001, Hayden Lake, a town in northern Idaho, was the headquarters of the Aryan Nation. When, in 2009, white supremacist James W. von Brunn shot at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, an attack resulting in the death of a guard and himself, it was quickly revealed he spent time in Idaho.
Critics see the intransigence of state lawmakers on same-sex protections as an extension of Idaho’s tradition of intolerance, a charge the state’s Republican Gov. Butch Otter angrily denies.
"I did not accept the premise," he told an Idaho Statesman reporter in February. "Idaho does not an have anti-gay reputation is what I’m saying! You guys are dead wrong on that!"
Only a few days later, Gov. Otter, who did not respond to requests for an interview with EDGE, seemed to reiterate that stance, telling The Spokesman-Review, "I don’t perceive Idaho as anti-gay," but then added, "I perceive it as pro-marriage in the traditional sense."
That kind of political double-talk only fuels senator LeFavour and Mistie Tolman, co-chair of Add The Words, one of the most prominent local LGBTQ advocate groups organizing rallies in Boise.
"In the eight years we’ve been working on this, we’ve never had so much as a public hearing so that people can come in and testify to the committee to give them their stories," says Tolman. "They won’t even have an open discussion about it."
Tolman specifically identifies Senator Curt McKenzie, chairman of the Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee, as a major stumbling block. She recounts how on several occasions he justified avoiding the issue of debating LGBTQ protections by saying that if he does not see a clear path to the Governor’s desk with a bill, he "doesn’t like putting his committee through hearing bills that are controversial."
"That because it’s going to cause a lot of media attention, cause a lot of uproar, going cause a lot of committee members getting phone calls and e-mails for their constituents, his committee needs to be ’protected’," Tolman says.
"To that," she continues, "I think it’s unfortunate that while he is protecting his committee, people in Idaho are losing their jobs, they’re losing their housing, they’re living in fear every single day and it is unfortunate that he has to feel like he just needs to protect his committee, instead of protecting the people of Idaho."
’We’ve Had Enough’
The ideological divide over LGBTQ equality splits Idaho on several fronts. While some polls cite that up to 81% of Idahoans feel that it should be illegal to discriminate, the very strong Mormon constituency keeps Idaho firmly in the red. LeFavour and Tolman both tell EDGE that when a federal judge ordered Utah to recognize same-sex marriage, Mormons in Idaho took a defender-of-the-faith position that swung the state even more to the political right. Two virulently anti-LGBTQ religiously based right-to-discriminate bills in the Idaho state legislature were only just pulled after a public outcry.
To reflect Otter’s and McKenzie’s inaction, Add The Words and other groups respond by blocking doors and other points of egress in the Idaho statehouse, each protester holding a their hand to their mouth in symbolic silence. The vigils resulted in over 140 arrests since February 6, including multiple arrests for LeFavour and have brought Otter’s comments that there is no problem into center stage of the debate.
As if to prove the point, two young Idahoans have committed suicide since January because of anti-gay bullying.
"We do have a problem with anti-gay hate crimes here," LeFavour tells EDGE, "and people don’t report them because if they do, it could be revealed that they are gay and they could loose their job, after already being victimized physically."
Ironically, while she was a state senator, LeFavour, who was out throughout her election campaign and tenure, recalls how she was treated equally and with respect by her peers, and that she only stepped down because she felt her energies could be but to better use outside the capitol. Even if it means in jail.
"And I think I can say that it was a good destination," she says.
"We’ve had enough," sums Tolman. "We are out of patience after eight years of not even being able to have a conversation, to finally tell our stories. Everybody in Idaho should feel safe, everyone in Idaho should be protected."