All right, people of Somerset. It’s all on you now.
It’s on you to not be jerks.
After much debate back and forth in public forums over the last couple of months, the proposed amendment to the city’s human rights ordinance that would include wording encouraging equal treatment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was shot down by the Somerset City Council, 10 against one.
I felt for our new mayor Alan Keck, as this was a monster of a hornet’s nest in which to step immediately after being elected. As a youthful visionary and a man very open about his faith, Keck received support in the last election from both the conservative churchgoing crowd and the more liberal arts-and-entrepreneurial segment of the population. And right there waiting for Keck when he took office in January was a conflict that pitted those two ideological factions against one another.
In this case, it was over the equal treatment of members of the LGBTQ community. To be fair, the proposed amendment to an already existing ordinance that offered protections based on factors like race, sex and nationality didn’t specify that it was for gay, lesbian, or transgender people — it just said to “encourage fair treatment and equal opportunity for all persons, regardless of ... sexual orientation or gender identity.” That works both ways, meaning just as a heterosexual shop owner couldn’t kick out a gay couple because of their sexuality, neither could a homosexual shop owner do so to a straight couple.
Nevertheless, that’s what the argument came down to for most people — gay people vs. church people. Which is a really unfortunate dichotomy to have. Personally speaking, I love my LGBTQ friends and neighbors and I love Jesus. Frankly, I’m much too concerned with asking God to help me with my own issues in life to worry about whether or not what my neighbor is doing is morally correct. I’ve got my own problems to worry about.
What I think didn’t get discussed as much was the issue of putting a mandate for equal treatment into effect as city policy. I think that’s what made a lot of people really uncomfortable — and not necessarily for justified reasons. There was a lot of talk about whether churches could preach the type of messages they believe, and Fairness Ordinance supporters made it clear that wouldn’t be affected by this amendment. Nor would you have to perform a service that specifically compromised your religious beliefs, as in the Lexington gay pride T-shirt case or the infamous “bake a cake for a gay wedding” headline maker. Just don’t discriminate in your normal, everyday business dealings based on gender or sexual orientation. Don’t run a restaurant and kick out the gay couple sitting at your table, fire your employee for being transgender, or refuse to rent to someone because they’re a lesbian.
And while these kinds of things do happen, I don’t think we had a specific inciting incident locally — at least not one that has come to light and been discussed at length during all of this — that led to this local push for a Fairness Ordinance that’s inclusive of LGBTQ. People seemed on the surface to be tolerating each other. But the prospect of putting it in writing spooked people, I think. It made some people insecure about how their beliefs would be handled. And those people apparently represented a more sizable (or at least more vocal) portion of the local population that contacted city councilors. That’s based on what councilor Jimmy Eastham said, noting that he voted the way “the majority of people wanted” him to vote.
Look, I understand not wanting to have laws dictate what you do with your private property. I don’t like any kind of government intrusion into my personal choices. I get being made uncomfortable by that prospect. A legislative body trying to steer my behavior makes me resentful, and I believe that’s what many people perceived happening here.
But for now — at least with respect to sexual orientation and gender identity — that is not the case in Somerset. There is still no written requirement telling you to be fair to LGBTQ individuals.
So that means it’s on you not to be a jerk.
Because if you don’t treat such a person (or any person, of any kind) fairly in your business dealings, that’s what that means. That you’re being a jerk.
I’m not saying that your deeply-held religious beliefs make you a jerk. If you are honestly trying to seek the truth and God’s will in your life, then I have to commend your faithfulness. But if those beliefs cause you to make a neighbor in this community feel unwelcome or unsafe, then that’s what makes you a jerk.
It’s on you to see a gay couple or a transgender person come into your business, and even if that makes you uncomfortable, to let it slide and treat them the same way you would any other customer.
It’s on you to accept that an employee of yours has a sexual orientation different from your own, and that as long as they can do the job you hired them for to the best of their abilities, that’s all that matters.
The decision made by the Somerset City Council on Monday — while it may reflect the values of much of this community — will inevitably result in a black eye in terms of public perception elsewhere (something which, honestly, could hurt this tourism-based economy’s standing among would-be visitors — and could make it harder on newly-created SPEDA to attract industries). It’s now on you not to embarrass this community by creating a situation where an LGBTQ person is discriminated against, causing people to say, “See, this is why we needed this in the Fairness Ordinance,” making that black eye even more swollen.
Do the right thing. We hear the phrase “love your neighbor” a lot. Well, you don’t have to love what your neighbor does in their private life. No one’s asking you to do that. Just don’t be a jerk to them. Leave them alone. Live and let live.
And if that doesn’t sell you, think about what really matters most to any businessperson — the bottom line. When you turn away someone because of their sexuality, you’re turning away someone whose money is just as green as anyone else’s.
That’s money from their pocket that you won’t have in yours. And probably even more money lost after they go and make it public how they were treated poorly by this person in the business community, and other people decide you’re a jerk and that they shouldn’t visit your establishment. That’s doing a lot of damage to your own bank account just because you were so persnickety about some practically-speaking inconsequential detail about another person that you couldn’t just let it go.
Don’t be that person. Don’t be self-destructive. Don’t be a jerk, no matter which side of the fence you’re on.
A lot of people in Somerset wanted that in writing. They didn’t get it. So now it’s the responsibility of everyone else to prove there wasn’t a need for it, that we can all function as a society of individuals without being told to in an ordinance.
We shouldn’t require a city council to tell us to get along with each other, even those with whom we have differences. Now we all need to demonstrate why we shouldn’t.
CHRIS HARRIS is a Staff Writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter on @charrisatcj.