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Port: Are North Dakota’s liberals willing to look past partisanship on gay rights?

Rob Port column sig
Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. -- In the state House of Representatives there looms an important test for North Dakota’s gay rights advocates.

Will they support HB1441 , a bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation, even though it doesn’t include protections for transexual citizens?

Will they support it even though it’s primary and secondary sponsors are almost all Republicans?

This is an important question for these polarized times.

The proponents of adding homosexuals to North Dakota’s list of protected classes have long argued that discrimination against gays in areas like housing and hiring is endemic in our state.

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I think we can all agree that some level of discrimination is happening. I’ll leave the debate over the scope of the problem to another time.

Gay rights activists and their political allies have said they oppose HB1441, despite the protections it would create for discrimination against homosexuals, because the bill excludes trans people.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mary Johnson (R-Fargo), has argued that this is the point. Not because of any hostility she bears towards trans people but for the sake of pragmatism.

Politics, it has been said, is the art of the possible. The inclusion of trans people in previous iterations of this legislation has been a hangup causing some lawmakers to vote against it. Johnson believes, by narrowing the scope of the bill, the Legislature may be able to find a consensus which enshrines some protections in law.

We’ll see whether or not she’s right once this bill comes up for a floor vote.

From the perspective of gay rights activist, the bill passing would be a net gain on an issue they claim is important to them. A win, in other words, if not a complete one.

Yet the activists are advocating against passage.

Elizabeth Loos, executive director of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, offered testimony to a House committee this week in opposition to the bill. She argues that it would "codify into law that it is acceptable to discriminate against transgender people."

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That’s one way to look at it, I suppose. Another might be to see that this bill would increase the number of people protected from discrimination by the law.

A cynic might argue that this sort of progress is bad for job security when you’re in the sort of business Loos is.

An ugly reality from the underbelly of politics is that the professional activists hired to solve a problem have little personal incentive to actually solve the problem.

If you’re too successful you work yourself out of a job.

To the extent that discrimination against gays is a problem in North Dakota today, legislation addressing it means less work for certain political groups and activists.

Addressing it through Republican-sponsored legislation would also be destructive to certain partisan narratives perpetuated by Democrats.

I suspect these vested interests will be why at least some lawmakers - particularly those with a “D” behind their names - vote against HB1441.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

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