A lesbian woman told Senate and House members March 20 she once lived in fear her sexual orientation would be discovered by her employer.
Mistie Tolman spoke to the joint State Affairs committees during a forum on updating Idaho’s Human Rights Act to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination. She said she kept no pictures of her partner on her desk and that she couldn’t live life to her fullest because she worried she’d be fired if her boss found out.
Others who spoke in favor of protections included Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson and Clark Krause, head of the Boise Valley Economic Partnership.
The forum in the Idaho Capitol’s Lincoln Auditorium came a year after Republican senators rejected introducing a bill to revamp the Human Rights Act. Advocates requested the March 20 session in hopes of one day winning enough support, even though GOP members who control the committee say there will be no renewed vote on the issue this year.
Now a Boise State University student, Tolman said that seemingly commonplace inquiries about her family took on an ominous tone, as she sought to reveal just enough about her private life to dispel suspicion but not enough to potentially put her job in danger.
“These normal innocuous questions become in your head a matter of having a livelihood or not,” she said. “You keep yourself at an arm’s length with everyone.”
Last year, a near-capacity crowd numbering around 300 in same auditorium erupted in tears and disbelief after Senate Republicans rejected even considering the Human Rights Act changes.
Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa and chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, said he didn’t think sentiment had shifted among the panel’s majority to justify a renewed formal hearing.
However, McKenzie and others said they wanted to make sure members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and its supporters had an opportunity to be heard in the 2013 session.
“If we’re coping with this problem, we need to be better educated,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg.
Since the 2012 hearing, several communities — including Sandpoint and Boise — have acted on their own to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Masterson, who has led the law enforcement agency in Idaho’s largest city since 2005, said he’s gotten no related complaints since Boise’s new ordinance went into effect last November.
Even so, he worries that discrimination and even violent crimes against gay people are still being underreported, because victims fear they’ll be “outed” by pursuing prosecution.
Masterson said the value of having statewide protections like those that would be included in a Human Rights Act update wouldn’t be so much in enforcement, but in providing a standard — to be discussed informally across kitchen tables, in workplaces and elsewhere — to raise awareness.
“I choose to look at the effect of laws in the absence of complaints,” Masterson said.
Rep. Kelley Packer, a freshman Republican from McCammon who as a member of the House State Affairs Committee was hearing this debate in her lawmaker role for the first time, said she favors protections for all people in Idaho, regardless of sexual identity.
Experiences with those close to her have helped to shape her feelings, she said.
Though Packer worries some gay activists could abuse new protections by wearing flamboyant clothing or aggressively promoting an agenda in a way that’s inappropriate in the workplace, she believes the Legislature should hold another vote — possibly early in the 2014 session.
“I hope it’s quick out of the gate,” she said. “I want gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to have a safe haven. I would just ask that they not abuse it. I would vote for something that protects everybody.”