Written by Seeing Red Guest Contributor George E. Wolf. George is a Professor Emeritus of the English Department at UNL, book review editor at Western American Literature, and a longtime Lincoln activist. This piece also appeared in the Lancaster Democratic Party March 2020 Newsletter.
“The time is always right to do the right thing.” –Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Come June, the U.S. Supreme Court will issue judgments in three cases implicitly bearing on inaction by members of Lincoln’s City Council. In Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, Bostock v. Clayton County, and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC (Google the cases), the Court will decide whether it’s legal to fire workers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The smart money is betting the Court’s conservative majority will decide that it is legal to fire individuals due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Nonetheless, Lincoln’s political leaders, aware of these cases, continue to deny legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who work or wish to be hired to work in the city. Having met with most of the Council members as well as the Mayor, I’m familiar with excuses. Here’s the most threadbare one: “Now isn’t the right time to pass a Fairness ordinance protecting LGBTQ folks in Lincoln from discrimination.” Why the dithering?
When the City Council passed a Fairness ordinance back in 2012, powerful forces opposing it mounted a successful petition drive compelling the Council either to put the ordinance to a city-wide vote or to rescind it. As was its right, that Council chose to do neither, as has every Council since. Those same opposing forces could be expected to mount another petition campaign were the current Council to pass a new or amended Fairness ordinance.
In the event a petition drive to put LGBTQ civil rights to a vote succeeded again and this time the City Council went ahead and placed the issue on the November 2020 ballot—when a massive voter turnout can be expected—our city’s political leaders dread it would be defeated, exposing Lincoln to be a far less welcoming, meaner place in which to work and dwell than they take pride in representing it as being. Better to do nothing now than risk alienating forward-looking businesses and young people from planting roots in territory that would have voted so conspicuously to tolerate discrimination.
It’s tough to know what underlies this dread, this deep lack of confidence in the very voters who elected a new city leadership last May on the basis, in part, of its public support of anti-discrimination legislation. It can’t be the results of opinion polls taken since 2012, such as the UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute’s 2017 findings that 74% of Nebraskans supported gay anti-discrimination laws. It can’t be the results of a 2018 survey sponsored by UNL’s Bureau of Sociological Research that revealed that over 80% of Lincolnites favored laws protecting gay, lesbian, and transgender members of our community from employment discrimination.
Perhaps it’s something more insidious, a wish to evade the harsh realities that every social justice movement in our history as a republic has inevitably had to endure. We know how harsh these realities can be, as do our city leaders, from the movements to end slavery, to enfranchise women, to form labor unions, to end Jim Crow, to demand drugs to fight AIDS, to combat global warming.
There are well-intentioned advocates within the LGBTQ community itself who, aware of what hatefulness and cruelty opponents of gay rights are capable of, fear for the psychological well-being of young people in particular, young people who will have to withstand the venomous words and deeds sure to become weapons for the worst of a homophobic opposition. This is painful. It makes one pause. But pausing forever is the most surefire way to avoid the hardships that terrify some advocates since a mean-spirited vocal opposition to gay rights will always be with us. What’s more, it neglects, as though they didn’t exist, those who suffer right now because city leaders continue to fail to act.
All across the country towns, and cities, and counties are passing Fairness ordinances in states, like Nebraska, whose legislatures have refused to do so: 35, so far, in Florida; 7 in Georgia; 14 in Idaho; 49 in Indiana; 17 in neighboring Kansas; 20 in Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky; 46 in Michigan; 18 in Missouri; 38 in Ohio; 58 in Pennsylvania; 13 in West Virginia; and so it goes. It’s a community-wide embarrassment that Lincoln’s majority Democratic City Council has decided to keep Lincoln from joining them right now.
We elect our leaders not simply to do the seemingly prudent thing, or cautious thing, or safe thing, but to do the right thing. Now is the time to pressure those leaders—in emails, letters, phone calls, and conversations—to adopt a Fairness ordinance immediately because it’s the right thing to do. The only perfect time to stand up to injustice is as soon as we know injustice exists.