BEREA, Ky. – In this college town known for a legacy of diversity, the debate over whether to extend discrimination protections to gays and lesbians has turned divisive.
The discussion has been continuing since May and June, when this Madison County city of 13,500 residents held two public forums on whether to propose an ordinance establishing a human rights commission, which would promote and protect human rights.
“I made the statement … when this thing came up that everybody is going to be mad, and that’s probably the way it’s turned out,” said Berea City Council member Billy Wagers.
City Council member Violet Farmer tells the Lexington Herald-Leader that the issue has torn the town apart.
“People on both sides of the issue have dug in for the long haul, and they’ve become polarized,” Farmer said. “It’s a very volatile situation.”
The debate has centered on whether a human rights commission should include alleged discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity among the matters it would investigate, the Lexington newspaper reported. Sexual orientation refers to which gender one is attracted to, while gender identity refers to whether one identifies with his or her birth gender.
On July 19, the city council introduced an ordinance to start a human rights commission that did not include sexual orientation or gender identity.
That disappointed those who want a full-fledged fairness ordinance- a separate measure that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment and accommodations. Among them was retired newspaper editor Guy Townsend.
“The entire country needs to include sexual orientation in among the protected classes like race, gender, age and things of that sort,” Townsend said. “If this country stands for fairness, then we ought to be for that.”
Townsend suspects that the ordinance does not include sexual orientation or gender identity because the council sought a compromise to appeal to the broadest segment of support in the town that’s home to Berea College.
Others welcomed the proposal as a move in the right direction because Berea has no human rights commission now to investigate reports of any discrimination, including those based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age or physical disability.
And still others, like retiree Jack Hall, see the creation of a human rights commission as another example of intrusive government.
“We have enough laws on the books for anti-discrimination–everything from fair housing to work laws to rent laws,” Hall said. “If the anti-discrimination laws served their purpose we wouldn’t need any more, because we’ve got enough now to float a boat, and I just think it’s an exercise in futility.”
Public reaction to the proposal on the table runs the gamut, said the Rev. Kent Gilbert, pastor of Berea’s Union Church.
“Those in favor (of a fairness ordinance) think it’s not enough. Those opposed think it’s too much,” he said.
Gilbert said his personal preference is that the council would “do the right thing” and pass an ordinance that includes sexual orientation.
At present, there are 23 local human rights commissions in Kentucky. Some have jurisdictions that cover only a city, such as Richmond, while others are countywide, such as the one that covers Versailles, Midway and Woodford County.
Berea’s history of openness to diversity has been referenced in the current debate.
Berea College was started by the Rev. John Fee, an abolitionist minister who had volunteered at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, a recruitment and training camp for black Union soldiers during the Civil War. At the end of the war, Fee invited many blacks to settle in Berea, promising them an interracial school, among other things.
The college operated as the only integrated school in Kentucky until 1904, when the state made it illegal to educate black and white students together, the newspaper reported. The college challenged the law, but it was upheld in state courts, and, in 1908, in the U.S. Supreme Court. Berea College was not reintegrated until 1950.
In the meantime, Berea College became known as a school that recruited poor Appalachian students, charged no tuition, and required all students to work in a college industry while attending school.