Last Tuesday, the Topeka City Council chamber filled to capacity as citizens witnessed emotional testimony and a closely contested vote on a so-called Equality Package that would update the city's human rights ordinances to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, while also allowing same-sex and opposite-sex couples to register domestic partnerships with their employers. The new policy was developed by LGBT rights group Equality Kansas of Topeka, and Topeka Councilman Chad Manspeaker.
This victory follows last September's addition of education about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity to the Topeka Human Rights Commission's mission. That ordinance did not explicitly extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBT people, notes LGBTQ Nation.
But with last week's passage of the Equality Package, gender identity has become a protected class within Topeka's employment policies. Additionally, couples in domestic partnerships — whether same- or opposite-sex — can register their relationships with the city. Lastly, the city must make a good faith effort to provide healthcare benefits to all employees in the registry, regardless of the gender of the partners.
Advocates told the Topeka Capital-Journal that the Equality Package stands to improve hiring and job retention for gender-nonconforming citizens, as well as increase access to relationship-based benefits not afforded same-sex couples in Kansas, whose government does not currently support marriage equality.
But the struggle for equal benefits isn't over. While the registry allows domestic partners to put their relationship on record, employers retain the choice of whether or not to grant benefits to partners. The Capital-Journal notes that many Topeka employers have already expressed ambivalence toward or resistance to approving such benefits, and small businesses with fewer than 50 employees are not required to provide dependent coverage at all.
While the Equality Package is an important step towards equality, advocates face additional hurdles in working to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, largely through education. Equality Kansas of Topeka hopes to move toward that goal by conducting outreach to help employers understand their new ability to extend benefits to domestic partners, board member Stephanie Mott told the Capital-Journal.