by Tessa Weinberg, Missouri Independent
On one end of the Missouri Capitol last week, Sen. Greg Razer was making yet another unsuccessful attempt to convince his colleagues to enact legal protections in state law for LGBTQ Missourians.
“I’m still perceived as controversial,” Razer, a Kansas City Democrat who is one of just six openly LGBTQ lawmakers in the legislature and the only member in the Senate, said last week on the Senate floor.
Hours later across the rotunda in the House, Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, was advancing a measure to allow voters to bar transgender girls from participating on girls’ sports teams in their school district.
“This isn’t about hate. This is about fairness,” said Basye, who added the provision to an omnibus election bill. “There’s lots of examples in our society that males are biologically superior than females.”
The dynamic was an encapsulation of the fate LGBTQ issues have met in the legislature for years.
The Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, has languished in the legislature for 24 years. It’s been three years since it’s even received a committee hearing.
Meanwhile, legislation targeting transgender students has gained support in the House for the last two years, though it has yet to be passed out of the Senate.
“I grew up in a school district that would vote tomorrow to put this in place,” Rep. Ian Mackey, a St. Louis Democrat who is openly gay, said to Basye on the House floor. “…Thank god I made it out. And I think everyday of the kids who are still there who haven’t made it out, who haven’t escaped from this kind of bigotry.”
Missouri law doesn’t protect discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That means a person can be fired, denied housing or kicked out of a restaurant for being gay or transgender, or simply being perceived as gay or transgender.
Some lawmakers had been especially hopeful that this session would bring progress on the issue, after former state Rep. Tom Hannegan, an openly gay Republican lawmaker, died last year of a stroke. He was 51 years old, and during his six years in the legislature championed legislation to pass the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, known as MONA.
“It’s something that was really, really a calling of Tom’s,” said Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Ballwin Republican who was Hannegan’s former officemate and filed MONA this year in his honor, “and just something that he wanted to see because it would help not just him, not just people like him, but just everybody in Missouri.”
‘Let’s make more progress’
During debate last week on a bill that would allow state employees to be paid twice a month, Razer offered an amendment to make it unlawful for the Office of Administration to refuse to hire or to fire someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The amendment, which would only apply to state employees, was offered after senators had just adopted an amendment that would prohibit public employees from being mandated to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment.
But for some lawmakers the issues were fundamentally different.
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said while he was in support of protecting someone’s right over their medical decisions, he did “not want to create more divisions under state law or our constitution that divide the public unless absolutely necessary.”
What’s more, Eigel said not having protections for LGBTQ Missourians in state law, “has not prevented tremendous progress in the societal views.”
“So let’s make more progress,” Razer said, later adding: “How is it progress that we’re going to protect anti-vaxxers but not me?”
The version of the bill was eventually withdrawn before Razer’s amendment could be voted on.
Unable to get a debate, let alone a vote, on MONA, in recent years lawmakers have used amendments and rare procedural moves in the hope of forcing the issue onto the agenda.
That continued last week, when Rep. Chris Sander, R-Lone Jack, pushed to expand a bill’s scope to allow for debate on the issue. His effort failed when his amendment was ruled out of order.
Sander, who is openly gay, has also filed a standalone bill that similarly prohibits discrimination based upon a person’s sexual orientation. But unlike other versions of MONA, Sander’s does not include gender identity.
He’s open to gender identity being added to his bill, Sander said, “but I don’t feel like I’m the one to lead the discussion, because it’s not how I identify.”
Shira Berkowitz, senior director of public policy and advocacy for PROMO, a statewide organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality in Missouri, said versions of MONA that only included protections based on sexual orientation likely could have passed years ago in the legislature. But leaving out protections for transgender Missourians is not something PROMO is willing to compromise on.
It’s a position that Hannegan shared.
“So if something were to pass in his memory,” Berkowitz said, “then we wanted to ensure that it truly was something that he would have supported and stood for.”
Ensuring fairness, or transphobia?
For hours during last week’s House debate, Republicans stressed that Basye’s proposal was needed to ensure fairness in girls’ sports.
“It’s about equal opportunity, because of the physiological differences” said Rep. Mike Haffner, R-Pleasant Hill.
But Democratic lawmakers who decried the bill noted the Missouri State High School Activities Association already has a policy in place outlining requirements for transgender youths’ participation in sports, and argued transgender kids were being used for political gain.
“This is an issue because conservative groups have lost on gay marriage. You tried to do it with the bathroom bills instilling fear about trans people,” said Rep. Martha Stevens, D-Columbia. “It’s just plain transphobia.”
The amendment was ultimately adopted by a vote of 89 to 40, and Basye said it was just one avenue where he would try to advance legislation on the issue.
Opponents of Basye’s amendment were quick to point out that there have been no committee hearings on any version of MONA for several years.
In the Senate, Razer alleged during debate last week that Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, “intentionally” referred his version of MONA to a committee where it would never be heard, something Schatz flatly denies.
“That wasn’t my intention at all,” Schatz said.
Both Sander and Dogan said they hoped to see their bills receive a hearing, but neither bill has been scheduled to be heard in the House Special Committee on Litigation Reform. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Ellisville, declined to comment.
Even if the bill isn’t heard, Dogan said he hoped that discussions behind-the-scenes with religious organizations and the LGBTQ community would help build a foundation for consensus to be reached in the future.
Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, a St. Louis Democrat who also filed a version of MONA this year, said it’s especially needed to help improve mental health outcomes for LGBTQ youth who have faced discrimination.
“I’m a proud gay, Black, disabled man,” Aldridge said, later adding: “No one should have to take their life just because they want to love somebody that may look like them, or may identify (the same as) them.”