On Tuesday, March 13, Equal Omaha and dozens of people packed the Legislative Chambers to hear the City Council’s decision on an equal employment ordinance proposed by District 2 representative Ben Gray. The ordinance would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In the three months leading up to the vote, city leaders, business owners, members of the local music and arts community and citizens mobilized to tackle all potential arguments against the bill. During that time, morning meetings were penciled in to accommodate work schedules, a state bill was introduced that threatened to effectively end the equal protection ordinance before it was introduced and a 72-hour behind-the-scenes effort to get corporate support came together. But on March 13, after months of concerted effort, supporters of the measure were uncertain how the City Council was going to vote.

“I had no idea what to expect,” said Craig Moody of VOICE Omaha.

Moody said he knew at least two members, District 5 representative Jean Stothert, and District 7 representative Thomas Mulligan, would vote “No.” Both voted against Gray’s original anti-discrimination ordinance in 2010, along with District 4 representative Garry Gernandt, crossing party lines. That left District 6 representative Franklin Thompson, who declined to vote on the issue in 2010. A professor of education with a specialization in human relations, Thompson seemed the most likely “Yes” vote the measure needed.

Mike Battershell, also of Equal Omaha, attended the March 13 hearing. “We knew it was or was not going to go by one vote,” he said. “We weren’t given tips, like no ‘winks’ or ‘nods’ – nothing.”

During those hours, however, people who couldn’t attend the meeting were free to speculate as Equal Omaha had a live webstream of the hearing. Moody was at home with his daughter at the time, sick with a flu that afflicted several people who attended the weekly meetings and worked off-hours to ensure the ordinance’s passage. For the first hour-and-a-half of the meeting, he followed events via the #EqualOmaha hash tag on Twitter.

“It was really entertaining … especially when Franklin Thompson started talking because there were so many crazy soundbites,” Moody said. “It was really interesting for me to follow a city council meeting in that way.”

At the end, the Equal Employment Ordinance passed by a 4-3 party line vote with Gray, Pete Festersen, and Chris Jerram voting “Yes” and Mulligan, Stothert, and Thompson voting “No.” Gernandt cast the deciding “Yes” vote, reversing his previous decision in 2010.

“No one should be discriminated against in the work place,” Gernandt explained in an email. 

After the vote, supporters spilled out into the hallway to celebrate. “You’re in a spot with people who’ve felt marginalized, and all of a sudden, you’ve seen them be allowed and accepted more than they were immediately before,” Battershell said. “That’s a powerful, emotional time.”

That almost didn’t happen except for the thoughtful, concerted effort of a small group of individuals.

Learning From Past Mistakes

It was almost the exact opposite reaction in 2010 when the City Council was deadlocked in a decision on Gray’s original anti-discrimination ordinance. After that ordinance failed, Moody said some supporters were either reluctant to take up the issue again or stopped going to meetings entirely.

 “It’s an indication on how hard the battle’s been,” Moody said, reflecting on the long struggle by LGBT citizens to battle discrimination, including the 2000 loss on Nebraska’s Initiative 416 which denied marriage to same-sex couples.

After the first ordinance’s defeat, Moody said there were some immediate discussions on whether or not to reintroduce the legislation. One option involved waiting until after the 2012 election year and reintroducing it in 2013. Michael Gordon, a board member of Citizens for Equal Protection, said he initially approached Mayor Jim Suttle and the City Council about introducing an anti-discrimination ordinance in 2010. Though he said he couldn’t believe the anti-discrimination ordinance didn’t pass, he had no regrets about its failure.

“I’m glad we didn’t win the first time around, because it would have been a quiet victory,” Gordon said. “This way, we made a lot of noise, we made a lot of friends, and we all had a heckuva lot of fun working together.”

In an email exchange, Gray said after the 2010 ordinance failed he received numerous phone calls and emails from both the straight and gay community, asking to reintroduce the legislation. Gray said people voiced concerns about Omaha being perceived as an unwelcoming community. 

“There were also three suicides in my district, that was an additional factor,” Gray said.  

In early 2011, Gordon said Gray was willing to try again to get the ordinance passed. Gordon said the biggest takeaway from 2010 was that better organization was needed. Gordon credited religious organizations like the Heartland Clergy for Inclusion as well as individual religious leaders like Eric Elnes of Countryside Community Church and Jane Florence of First United Methodist Church for trying early on to engage larger churches to support an equal protection ordinance.

“They were on the front lines all along,” Gordon said. “For 15 years, there’s been a lot of people behind the scenes changing the hearts and minds of the city of Omaha and the state of Nebraska.”

In late 2011, members of VOICE Omaha, Citizens for Equal Protection, the Anti-Defamation League, Nebraska AIDS Project, PFLAG and the Heartland Clergy for Inclusion began meeting at Delinea Design, and later at the architecture firm Alley Poyner Macchietto to lay out a strategy to ensure an anti-discrimination ordinance would pass the second time. One key approach was to take away a perceived negative (remove the term “anti-discrimination”) and replace it with a more positive term (equal employment). Moody said around this time, the need for a unified brand and consistency arose. Enter Equal Omaha.

“VOICE (Omaha) is not a legal entity, nor is Equal Omaha,” Moody said. “It’s just a coalition of organizations who started getting together … to ensure this ordinance passes.”

On January 4, weekly meetings started to take place and assignments were delegated. Because many of the key players had full-time jobs, the only time available for most people was 7:30 in the morning every Wednesday. The first step was to re-examine the language of the ordinance. Battershell said some people in the legal community who weren’t willing to publicly endorse the ordinance were willing to work behind the scenes on the legal language.

“Part of what VOICE does well is find people who may not be able to amplify their voice because of their professional connections, but have the skills and passion,” Battershell said.

Next came a face to their effort. Chad Eacker, creative director and co-owner of Delinea Design, sketched out the design for the Equal Omaha website in one night. Within a week, it went live on January 7. Eacker said he and other developers used Google Maps to enable Omaha residents to locate and contact their district representatives. To ensure people’s emails to their representatives were part of the public record, Eacker said the city clerk was also copied. 

“They could say that because none of the emails (addressed solely to a City Council member) were public record,” Eacker said.

Eacker also did not want council members to receive a generic form email from every visitor who chose to contact their representative. Instead, the site stated that the emails to the representatives would be part of public record and could be read at a future hearing, encouraging thoughtful communication.

“I can say because I read them… we got 800 emails, not a single one was disrespectful to all council members,” Eacker said.

Stumbling Blocks

On January 11, supporters of the Equal Employment Ordinance encountered a major obstacle when State Sen. Beau McCoy introduced LB 912, which would have left any employment discrimination policy decision up to the state and not individual cities and counties. If passed, LB 912 would have made any attempt by Omaha to pass an equal employment initiative a moot point. At the time of McCoy’s introduction, Gordon said the strategies set forth to support Gray’s ordinance had to shift gears and move to counter McCoy’s legislation.

“Right now the barn’s on fire,” Gordon said of the mindset when McCoy’s legislation was announced. “Right now, we’ve got other things to do… mainly kill that bill.”

Omaha musicians mobilized against McCoy’s measure. Conor Oberst, members of The Faint, as well as members of Conduits, The Good Life, McCarthy Trenching, and Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds, also an active member of Equal Omaha, signed a letter urging Nebraska senators to vote against LB 912.

The public hearing on LB 912 was held in February. The bill later languished in the Judiciary committee where it was “indefinitely postponed,” according to the Unicameral’s website. Gordon pointed out that had McCoy’s bill passed, two classes currently protected by Omaha’s bylaws are not included in the state’s non-discrimination policy — age and martial status. As a result, it would still be legal to discriminate by either age or marital status under McCoy’s measure, Gordon said.

“Do you really want to set the clock of discrimination back 20 years to tell old people they can be kicked out of their home?” Gordon asked. “That’s when we knew it was dead in the water.”

While the uncertainty of whether or not McCoy’s bill was going to pass loomed, supporters of the Equal Employment Ordinance were still working on finalizing the language before its official introduction on February 28. A week before its introduction, the language was finalized and shown to some businesses to address one of the major arguments against such non-discrimination ordinances — the legislation could result in higher costs for companies. Along with using companies such as Union Pacific (who already includes sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy), members of Equal Omaha were encouraged to contact their own places of employment to encourage their employers to sign on in support.

To counter the argument that an equal employment/anti-discrimination ordinance was not needed, a survey conducted by University of Nebraska Medical Center professor Christopher Fisher was reexamined. In a health questionnaire of almost 800 gay and transgendered participants, roughly a third reported experiencing some type of workplace discrimination. The results were shared with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s executive committee.

The focus on business sometimes came in conflict with people who saw the issue of discrimination as solely a human rights issue. Battershell said the members of Equal Omaha believed Gray’s ordinance was primarily a human rights issue. With that approach, it didn’t matter what the language in the ordinance stated.

“People deserve equal protection under the law. Period. End of story,” Battershell said. “The other side says ‘That’s great. And we agree. As long as there isn’t an undue hardship on business.’” 

By Feb. 21, EqualOmaha had 100 small and mid-sized businesses listed in support. On Feb. 27, that national Human Rights Campaign weighed in with action alerts. A day later Gray’s Equal Employment Ordinance was introduced and later in the afternoon ConAgra gave its endorsement, the first from a corporate leader. Michael Gordon said his work in getting ConAgra to sign on in support was his greatest accomplishment with the Equal Employment Ordinance.

Gordon said he knew people from ConAgra through the Greater Omaha GLBT Network (GOglbt), whose events ConAgra has sponsored. According to Gordon’s account, he spoke with a former member of GOglbt on a Sunday night. That person got in contact with a lawyer within ConAgra who later went to senior administration. Within 48 hours ConAgra publicly announced its support.

Meanwhile the ordinance was being batted around the council. An expanded religious exemption was added on March 1. That same day the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce came out with a neutral position, stepping back from its earlier opposition of the first ordinance. The organizing team gathered all of its documentation and carefully strategized its speakers to maximize the city council’s public hearing time.

As March 13 approached, the hill to climb for passage still seemed steep. Gernandt introduced language narrowing the measure to just public employees. Franklin seemed to be moving further away from a “yes” vote. Then an altogether unexpected obstacle began to afflict supporters — the flu. Amidst the frenzy of press interviews, organizing speakers, and being in constant contact with supporters, Craig Moody found himself in a doctor’s office “literally in a fetal position.”

“I should have just slept,” Moody said. The flu for several supporters extended all the way up until the March 13th vote. “There were a handful of really critical people who were involved in all the work who didn’t go to the vote and didn’t go to the celebration afterwards because they had the flu,” Moody said.

On March 9, Equal Omaha delivered thorough responses to the objections of opponents from the previous city council meeting. Last minute financing was secured for a short television campaign and a push poll to drive awareness for the March 13 meeting.

On the day of the vote, Chad Eacker counted himself amongst the sick (dubbing it “the equality flu”), but attended the hearing anyway. It was there he witnessed a final obstacle to the passage of Gray’s Equal Protection Ordinance. Eacker said Gray asked members of Equal Omaha if they would be willing to remove “gender identity” from the list of protected classes in the ordinance if a City Council member made such a request. Equal Omaha said they would not support the ordinance if that occurred. Gray then said “thank you” and said he hoped supporters would agree not to compromise on that condition.

“He’d rather take nothing at all than drop sexual identity,” Eacker said.

The measure passed, not only putting Omaha on the national map as a leader in inclusivity and equal rights, but reversing decades of efforts to institutionalize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Equal Not Just Omaha

The decision had an immediate impact in Lincoln as the City Council unanimously passed its own ordinance in May that banned employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, more than 10,000 signatures were collected seeking a ballot vote on the issue. 

Partly as a result of Lincoln’s vote, Equal Omaha has undergone a change. Type in EqualOmaha.com on an Internet browser, and you’ll automatically be redirected to EqualNebraska.com. Eacker said Equal Nebraska is focusing on addressing the backlash to the City Council vote in Lincoln as well as workplace equality issues throughout the state.

Moody and Battershell turned their experience into a learning opportunity in a class at UNMC. Moody said the conversation went three-and-a-half hours. Moody said he could have spent an entire class discussion just talking about the days leading up to the vote.

“There was just so many nuances to this,” he said. “It’s very much an onion. But we were very organized, thorough and thoughtful and that made all the difference.”

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