More than 100 people filled City Hall auditorium for Tuesday night’s Richmond City Commission meeting with many wearing the blue T-shirts of the Kentucky Fairness Coalition.
During a July 18 rally in front of City Hall, supporters of an ordinance to ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation were urged to attend Tuesday's meeting and ask the commission to reconsider its refusal to adopt such provisions.
Before the meeting’s public comment period, Mayor Jim Barnes said only two speakers advocating the same position would be heard, and each would be limited to five minutes.
First to speak was LeAnn Stokes of Richmond.
The question before the commission, she said, is “what is it going to take for you to believe that it is necessary ... that it is worth the cost” to adopt the anti-discrimination proposal?
Would an incident such as recently occurred in Nebraska in which a lesbian was beaten and had homophobic slurs carved into her body be required, she asked.
Passage of the ordinance would be a “proactive measure, a statement” telling the world that “we do not want what happened in Lincoln, Nebraska, to occur in Richmond,” she said.
It would underscore that everyone was welcomed in Richmond and that discrimination of any kind was not tolerated, Stokes continued.
It would tell parents as well as gay and lesbian youth that they would be protected both on and off campus if they attend Eastern Kentucky University, she added.
Debbie Secchio of Richmond said she was confident that the Richmond police and existing laws would not tolerate violence against anyone. Secchio said she knew what being different is like because she “stuck out like a sore thumb when she moved to Richmond from New York.”
Anti-discrimination laws can have unintended consequences she said. Kentucky’s prohibition against age discrimination protects only those age 40 and older, she said. That appears to allow “reverse discrimination” against those younger than 40. She told of a New York bank, no longer in existence, that would hire no one younger than 40. It would have complied with Kentucky’s age-discrimination statute, she said.
The U.S. Constitution protects private property, she said, and the recent incident of alleged discrimination in E.C. Million Park on Tates Creek Avenue took place on private property.
“That’s something for you to think about,” Secchio said.
She held up a booklet containing the Constitution and said she had five copies to share with others.
“We need to be careful when we address issues like this,” she said, “because we can cause a lot more problems than we fix.”
Lisa Day, identifying herself as a citizen and property owner of Richmond, distributed a folder to each commission member that she said showed the city would incur no cost from enacting or enforcing a fairness ordinance.
Richmond and Madison County have long been places where “history has been made and under-represented groups have been recognized as vital parts of the community.”
In 1879, after women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony spoke in Richmond, Laura Clay was inspired to charter the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Day said.
In 1894, Clay’s colleague Josephine Henry persuaded the state legislature to allow married women to own property. By 1900, Kentucky women “could even keep their own wages,” she said.
Clay and Henry’s advocacy was often called anti-family, dishonorable and Godless, Day said.
When the property she now owns was subdivided in 1924, Day said, the deed prohibited it from ever being owned by anyone “with Negro blood in their veins.”
After a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King and a Frankfort march in the mid-1960s, Kentucky became the first southern state to outlaw racial discrimination.
“I want to be sure that if I go to a park, restaurant or any other public facility that I will not be thrown out if I hug one of my friends too tightly,” Day said.
Her circle of friends may include more homosexuals than heterosexuals, she said, “And I want all of us to be treated fairly in this town,” she said.
“No one can legislate morality or prevent racism, sexism or homophobia,” Day said, “but fairness is our history. Richmond is on the verge of another historical moment. Let’s start this history sooner rather than later. Let’s be a model community.”
The comments of both Day and Stokes were met with loud, prolonged applause.
Sandra Powell, who chairs the city’s Human Rights Commission, said the panel has five vacancies and asked for volunteers to consider joining.
“If there is no fairness for me, there is no fairness for you,” she said.
No city commission members addressed the issue until their comment period at the meeting’s conclusion.
Commissioner Robert Blythe then said he was trying to decide for himself “if definitive action” on the issue would be better than “inaction.”
“I would not like the city of Richmond to be perceived as not trying to be fair,” Blythe said.
He intends to be engaged in conversation with members of the community, including with “devil’s advocates,” on the issue.
He does not make decisions easily, Blythe said.
“It takes me two days to decide whether to buy a pair of shoes,” he added later.
Barnes said as mayor that he wants “everybody to be treated fairly.”
Disagreements do not justify disrespect, he said, and he commended members of the audience for the respect they had shown the commissioners, even if they disagreed with their past actions.
“I respect you, even if we don’t agree,” the mayor said, “and I really appreciate the respect you have shown us tonight.”