Opinion: Oregon can again lead nation on Equity Act
In 2004, an assault on a gay man forced Bend residents to confront what sort of community they wanted to be. The Bend City Council, on which I served at the time, responded to public outcry by passing a ground-breaking ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation. Three years later, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation statewide. Bend led, and Oregon followed.
Now Oregon has an opportunity to lead the nation.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley was the speaker of Oregon House when the state's groundbreaking law passed. Now he's the leading proponent in the U.S. Senate for the Equality Act and he needs our support. The Equality Act would enshrine LGBTQ protections, including gender identity in the nation's labor and civil rights laws. The U.S. House recently passed it, despite a "no" vote from Bend's U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz.
Seventeen years ago, when I introduced Bend's equal rights ordinance, not all of my colleagues on council initially supported it. There was a sense among some of them that the people of Bend were not ready for the change. A few did not want to be perceived as radical. Others believed government should not legislate morality. In short, city councilors were hesitant to move forward.
Despite that initial hesitancy, the ordinance ultimately passed with a unanimous vote because residents stood up, demanded it, and the council listened.
The victim in the 2004 assault had his jaw broken by a violent punch because he was dancing with another man at The Grove restaurant in downtown Bend. What followed was inspiring. After the incident, the community came together to deliver the message that bigotry would not be tolerated in our city. The Human Dignity Coalition encouraged hundreds of residents to advocate for passage of an equal rights ordinance.
Hundreds of emails, phone calls, strategy sessions, tears and shouts culminated in a climatic council meeting that packed the downtown Bend Tower Theater to capacity. A dramatic roll-call vote resulted in unanimous passage of the ordinance. The victim of the 2004 assault was in the audience that night. After the meeting adjourned, the community joined him at The Grove to celebrate.
Bend city councilors did not identify as social justice warriors in 2004. We merely considered ourselves neighbors to our neighbors. By taking the time to listen, we learned.
It's nice to look back 17 years to that time when Bend came together as a community to speak with one voice against bigotry. And now it's time for us to take a realistic look at the present and seek a better future. It's time for us to acknowledge that in 2021 our country is not what it should be and to demand change.
Despite the results of the recent election, hate and bigotry have not been defeated and, sadly, seem to be growing. It's up to all of us to lead — local elected officials, community organizers, religious leaders, students, the business community, you and me. Write letters, make phone calls, post to your social channels so that Merkley and his fellow senators know that he has our strong support as he leads the effort to pass the Equality Act.
John Hummel of Bend is Deschutes County district attorney.
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