Last week, Harpers Ferry, with all of 286 residents, became the third municipality in West Virginia and the smallest in the entire United States to enact an anti-discrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation.
Anti-discrimination ordinances are not a new thing, of course; they have been around for years in all levels of government in this country. Even here, on a peninsula between two wild rivers, towered over by Blue Ridge Mountain, discrimination has been outlawed since 1979. It is banned statewide. The difference is that now lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people that help make our community unique are no longer left out in the cold, legally speaking.
The next smallest, Vicco, Ky., just passed such an ordinance in January of this year. Unfortunately, though, our state’s Human Rights Act does not yet include sexual orientation. LGBT residents and employees outside of Charleston, Morgantown, and now Harpers Ferry have no legal protections.
Harpers Ferry has long been prominent in the struggle for civil rights ever since 1859 when John Brown raided the Federal Armory with the hopes of freeing slaves, and again in 1906 when the Niagara Movement held its first meeting on U.S. soil at the historic Storer College.
When I became Harpers Ferry’s town recorder in 2009, there were no officially recognized gay elected officials in all of West Virginia. I was the very first one to be listed on the website of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a national political organization that promotes LGBT candidates and legislation. To be sure, I was not the first or only LGBT official in this state; I was merely the first to be publicly and officially known as such.
Fortunately, a change is under way in this great nation. Our society is progressing, albeit a bit more slowly in the Mountain State than in some other regions. Today, there are three West Virginia elected officials on the Victory Fund’s website, including the first at the state level — Delegate Stephen Skinner, who represents the district that includes Harpers Ferry (The other sits on the Charleston City Council). Yet, even now, in 2013, many people from the Shenandoah to the Ohio rivers, south to the farthest reaches of McDowell County, fear being out and open because they could lose their jobs or homes because of their sexual orientation.
Examples of the perils of being gay and out of the closet in West Virginia are not hard to find, but three have gained a good bit of attention in the past couple of years.
Sam Hall, a coal miner employed by a subsidiary of Massey Energy, endured several years of harassment, physical threats, and vandalism from fellow co-workers. When he complained to the company, nothing was done to stop the behavior. In fact, some of his superiors joined in the abuse. Conditions became so hostile Hall was forced to leave his job in 2010 and file a lawsuit against the company.
The following year, Jessica Hudson of Charleston interviewed for and was hired as the executive director of the Bob Burdette Center, an afterschool youth program in the city. The board of directors was so impressed with Hudson and her qualifications that she was the only one of 12 candidates given a second interview. Afterward, a center staffer learned through Facebook that Hudson is a lesbian. An emergency board meeting was held, during which three of the five members voted to rescind Hudson’s employment offer because of her perceived sexual orientation. However, Hudson was fortunate — in 2007, Charleston added sexual orientation to its own Human Rights Ordinance. The Circuit Court of Kanawha County upheld the city’s ordinance and ruled in Hudson’s favor. If that ordinance had not been in place, though, Hudson would not have won.
The latest of the more noticeable cases occurred just this month when Kelli Burns, a middle school teacher, was terminated by the Lincoln County Board of Education for “trying to turn her students gay,” among other ridiculous claims. It is yet to be seen how this case will play out, but one thing is for sure, Burns’ sexual orientation, whether real or perceived, will not be protected under current state law.
It is time we caught up with the world around us, to become a more progressive, inclusive, and forward-thinking state, and we finally have a real chance to do just that. Earlier this month, Delegate Skinner introduced the Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would add sexual orientation to the West Virginia Human Rights Act. It is clear that this legislation is of utmost importance in order to ensure workplace and housing equality for all West Virginia residents and the people of this state agree. Polls show the majority of those surveyed support it, as do most businesses. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has promised to sign the bill if it clears the Legislature, where a majority of the Senate already favors approval. The hurdle that could derail the process is the House of Delegates. Less than 50 percent of House members have so far pledged to vote in favor of EHNDA, but less than 50 percent have vowed to vote against it as well. The as-yet undecided delegates are obviously crucial. Organizations such as Fairness West Virginia, the Human Rights Campaign, and other equality groups have been reaching out to all House members in an effort to secure their votes to enact EHNDA into law. Without the voices of their constituents, though, these representatives will remain uncommitted, and the vast majority of LGBT employees and residents of this state will still not enjoy the anti-discrimination protections of which they should be assured.
It is time for the people of West Virginia to raise their voices and be heard. No one should have to live in fear of losing everything they have because of who they love. If one little town in the foothills of Appalachia can support equality in unison, all communities across this great and beautiful state should be able to do the same.
— Kevin Carden is the town recorder of Harpers Ferry