More than two
months after new civil rights protections for gays and
lesbians went into effect, Washington State
officials have spent more time answering
questions than launching investigations. That's fine
with Marc Brenman, executive director of the state Human
Rights Commission, who sees a wide-ranging education
effort as a crucial service during the law's early days.
"We're not hearing any howls of dismay from
anyone," he said Wednesday in Olympia. "Everybody
seems to have accepted the new statute in a good
spirit and a cooperative spirit."
State lawmakers passed the gay civil rights bill
in January after nearly 30 years of failed attempts by
several longtime legislative sponsors. The law, which
took effect in early June, added a sexual orientation
component to previous state bans on discrimination in
housing, employment, insurance, and credit.
The Human Rights Commission has the power to
investigate such complaints and may help cases enter
mediation or move them to the state attorney general
for legal action. So far, investigators have opened fewer
than 10 cases under the gay civil rights law, Brenman
said. He declined to give details but did offer two
examples: complaints from workers and a tenant
alleging harassment because of their sexual orientation,
with one employee claiming to have quit because of the
treatment; and difficulties at a health club, with a
transsexual alleging a membership had been canceled.
Along with a few formal investigations,
officials have fielded dozens of simpler queries. "I
think we've gotten the inquiries we've expected to
get: 'There's a transsexual employee transitioning in the
workplace; what bathroom should she use?' " Brenman said.
Opponents of the law suggested there was little
practical need for its protections in liberal-leaning
Washington State, and some critics see a lack of
headline-grabbing complaints as fuel for that argument.
Instead, the gay rights law could ultimately be used
to sue religious organizations and to help advance the
cause of same-sex marriage, said Gary Randall,
president of the conservative Faith and Freedom Network.
The civil rights law does not include any
protections similar to marriage, a fact that helps
highlight the rights gay and lesbian people still
lack, said Josh Friedes, advocacy director of the gay rights
group Equal Rights Washington. But he noted that the
civil rights law actually may have hurt gays in the
state supreme court's recent decision upholding a
state ban on same-sex marriage--the majority's
decision cited this year's approval of the bill as
proof that gays and lesbians are not a powerless underclass.
That reasoning has puzzled many observers,
including Friedes. But he said the civil rights law
has still been immensely valuable for gays and lesbians.
"In a lot of ways, what we have finally been
given is our First Amendment rights," he said. "Now
that we can finally talk about our partners at work,
talk about our children--now people can understand
the problems that we face." (AP)