COURTESY OF PETER MERIDETH
The author and his family march in a past Pride parade.
As Pride Month came to an end this weekend with colorful celebrations of love and community, I can't help but notice the contrast to attitudes from the Missouri legislature. It's a good reminder of why celebrating Pride continues to be so important.
2019 was the 21st consecutive year that we Democrats in the legislature have fought for the passage of the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act, or MONA, which would ban discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. It was the 21st consecutive year that the “conservative” majority rejected the bill without even allowing a vote. In 2019, for the first time, we managed to pass the bill out of the General Laws committee in the House. And this year, Republican leaders allowed a committee hearing in the last weeks of session but refused to allow a vote. They expected Democratic leaders (and LGBTQ activists) to be grateful for this minimal concession.
It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall riots, we’ve had 40 years of Pride marches in St. Louis, and yet in Missouri you can still be legally fired or denied housing because you are gay.
Let me say it again for those in the back:
IN MISSOURI — ENTERING 2020 — YOU CAN STILL BE FIRED OR DENIED AN APARTMENT FOR WHO YOU ARE OR WHO YOU LOVE WITH NO LEGAL RECOURSE.
But the legislature’s refusal to pass MONA is just the most well-known symptom of the larger problem. The majority’s disrespect and hostility toward the LGBTQ community shone loud and clear in their policies and priorities again and again this year. For example:
- In the first week of session, Democrats fought to amend our House rules to prohibit employment discrimination in the House based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Republicans loudly rejected the rule change as our underpaid and overworked employees, many who are part of the LGBTQ community, watched in disbelief.
- When the House passed a bill to prohibit government contractors from refusing to do business with the state of Israel as part of a political boycott (even though it’s already illegal for them to discriminate based on religion), Democrats introduced an amendment to prohibit those contractors from refusing to do business with our own LGBTQ Missourians. Republicans shot it down.
- The General Laws committee heard a bill again this year to prohibit colleges from denying student funds to groups that discriminate against LGBTQ students based on their “religious views.” Those student funds are paid by fees from all students, including the LGBTQ students that are excluded from such groups, yet Republicans felt they should still be entitled to that funding. Thankfully that bill didn’t make it across the finish line this year.
- While perfecting the annual bill to clean up our statutes and remove unconstitutional and outdated language from the books, Democrats offered an amendment to fix the existing definition of marriage, which is still defined in statute as between a man and a woman. The marriage definition has already been declared unconstitutional and void by courts, but the Republican leadership refuses to remove it from statute.
- When a UMKC student group invited a guest speaker onto campus who espoused inflammatory views on sexuality and gender identity, protests broke out at the school. One protestor went way too far and shot the speaker with lavender water from a squirt gun. He was promptly tackled by security, arrested and charged with assault. In the chancellor's statement about the incident, while he insisted that such speakers' right to free speech was essential, he also mentioned that the school disagreed with the speaker’s views and welcomes its LGBTQ community. Apparently, that statement “taking sides” by the chancellor (even when LGBTQ rights are official university policy) was profoundly offensive to House Republicans. We held hearings attacking the chancellor, with Republican members even openly threatening to defund the university over the incident. Republicans then invited the guest speaker to be introduced on the floor of the House to a standing ovation.
- A new Republican rep from Poplar Bluff — Hardy Billington — came into office this year. Billington had previously written books decrying “the gay lifestyle" — referring to gay people as "sodomites" and making ridiculous claims that being gay takes years off your life and kills more people than smoking. At the end of his first session, Republicans gave Billington a “freshman legislator of the year” award.
- Toward the end of session, following an incident with Billington’s words being brought up on the floor in a debate, the well-known hate group Westboro Baptist Church made a trip to the Capitol in his defense, holding their inflammatory signs in the Rotunda. Democrats held a press conference speaking out against their hate. Republicans were silent. Asked by the press why, they criticized Democrats for even saying anything about it. Silence was the message they wanted to send.
The silence of our leaders is a betrayal — and it is deafening in response to the bigotry and prejudice in our Capitol. LGBTQ youth are much more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, and bullying and hate crimes against them are on the rise. Protestors holding hateful signs is one thing, but when our elected leaders inside the building refuse to even denounce Westboro Baptist Church's presence, they are telling LGBTQ Missourians they are not protected in our state. When that silence is paired with Republican policies that validate discrimination against these kids under the guise of “religious freedom," or deny basic rights to the LGBTQ community, or insist on calling their marriages illegal, or reward members that spew bigotry, the message they send to these kids is that they don’t have value.
We don’t need more silence. We need more pride. Pride in ourselves and all of our neighbors for who we are. Celebration and acceptance of ourselves and others, and of love in all its forms. Our kids need to hear this message, and Missouri leaders owe it to them to join in the celebration. Now, as much as ever, the need for Pride continues in Missouri.
Peter Merideth represents south city's 80th District in Jefferson City. The RFT welcomes concise essays on topics of local interest. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you've got something to say.