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Gay advocacy group launches anti-discrimination TV ads

Gay advocacy group launches anti-discrimination TV ads

With debate raging about same-sex marriage nationwide, a Denver-based gay advocacy group has launched an ad campaign intended to steer voter attention to an even more basic gay rights issue: workplace discrimination. The Gill Foundation is testing television ads in Michigan, Florida, and Colorado featuring two men and two women who say they were fired for being gay or lesbian, or fear the consequences of being honest about their personal lives. The ads end with: "In 36 states, you can be fired just because you're gay." The group, which has given $54 million in grants to nonprofits nationwide, notes that only 14 states have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Although the U.S. Senate defeated a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage Tuesday, gays and lesbians face a number of inequalities every day, spokeswoman Allison Johnson said. The disparities include, she said, workplace discrimination, inability to make medical decisions for same-sex partners, and lack of Social Security benefits when a partner dies. The hope is to encourage voters to become educated about issues and candidates before the November 2 election. "There are a group of people that we need to educate who for the most part are straight and are fair-minded," Johnson said. Kimya Ayodele of Detroit, featured in one of the ads, said she hopes the campaign "does a lot of educating." Ayodele, who has a master's degree in social work, said she was fired in 2001 as a manager at a private health care center in the Detroit area because she's a lesbian. The 36-year-old woman, who wouldn't name the center on the advice of her lawyer, said the firing followed nearly a year of threatening messages, vandalism to her car, and slurs uttered in the halls. "In the back in my mind, I knew I couldn't do much," Ayodele said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. "Five attorneys later, and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) later, there's no lawsuit." Johnson said the Gill Foundation started its voter education effort, called TurnOut, about a year ago when focus groups and polls showed people were surprised that most states don't outlaw discrimination against gay and lesbian employees. She said many people who might not support gay marriage do oppose discrimination on the job. "We welcome all efforts to educate the American public about the need to not discriminate," said Steve Fisher, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization. The Gill Foundation chose Colorado, Michigan, and Florida as test sites for the ads in part because they don't include gays and lesbians in nondiscrimination laws. Johnson said it had nothing to do with the fact that Colorado is home to Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and Sen. Wayne Allard, the congressional sponsors of the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. Colorado was also home to Amendment 2, a voter-approved measure that prevented local governments from passing laws meant to protect gays from discrimination. The 1992 law stirred outrage from gay advocates nationwide but never took effect because it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Five Colorado communities, including Denver, prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Former Democratic state senator Doug Linkhart tried five consecutive years to pass a statewide law but failed when foes in the Republican-dominated legislature argued it would make employers targets of disgruntled workers. "It's one of those litmus-test issues that Republicans use on themselves," said Linkhart, now a Denver councilman. Linkhart said he and other lawmakers pushed the legislation after hearing stories of harassment and discrimination. Johnson said it's difficult to quantify the problem because of the lack of laws and mandatory reporting. "Most employee discrimination cases are difficult to prove, and that's when the law's on your side. When you do not have any federal or state statutes, the job becomes even more complicated," said Michael Brewer, a lawyer and public policy director for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado. Of the 382 calls the center averages each year, 38% deal with job issues, ranging from harassment from coworkers and managers to firing, Brewer said. "I often tell people, 'I think you just don't have recourse,'" he said.

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