POCATELLO, Idaho - This Thursday, the city council in Pocatello, Idaho, is expected to vote on whether to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s one of several cities in Idaho that have taken up the cause of gay rights – an issue the Idaho legislature has so far resisted.
But even some gay rights supporters wonder if the local ordinance will change anything.
The last thing Richard remembers is the face of the girl in the car. She looked like she was afraid of what was about to happen. Richard remembers her face better than the face of the man jumping out of that car and coming toward him looking for a fight.
“The first thought I had was I can’t take this guy; he was big. And really that was… I kind of stepped in front of my friend and I don’t remember seeing the punch coming to even brace myself for it.”
Richard asked to go by his first name. Both he and his friend are gay and were walking home from Pocatello’s only gay bar that February night. His attacker cracked Richard’s eye socket and fractured his skull. Richard’s friend ended up in surgery.
“I believe this guy would have killed me,” Richard says. “I believe he would have continued to beat if somebody wouldn’t have stopped him.”
Police still haven’t found the man. The incident wasn’t just chilling to Pocatello’s gay community. Suddenly it gave new urgency to a local ordinance the city council had been mulling over for months. The beating seemed to be a real example of the fears that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people had to live with.
When the city council took public testimony earlier this month, people in favor of the ordinance outnumbered those against by more than two to one. Many gays and lesbians, like Gloria Moncrief, spoke about having to hide their relationship.
“Since I was 16, I’ve paid the price and it’s time I should not have to pay the price anymore,” she said. “Not have to worry that if the landlord finds out, I could be on the streets again.”
Another person who testified was Gloria Mayer. She was one of several people who used this meeting to come out publicly for the first time.
“And we are afraid,” Mayer said. “We are afraid for ourselves and our partners but perhaps even more, we are afraid for our families.”
Pocatello is a university town situated squarely in the Mormon corridor of Idaho. The drive to create an anti-discrimination law here did not originate with a gay and lesbian rights group, but rather with a straight woman.
Susan Matsuura is the chair of the Human Relations Advisory Committee for the city of Pocatello. She started researching a local anti-discrimination ordinance shortly after a statewide effort died.
Matsuura says the real motivating factor was that in 2006 she met a gay person for the first time. It was her 17-year-old son.
“You know at that time, we were in Blackfoot, which is a population of about 10,000, very conservative and I said, ‘Don’t you tell anybody, don’t tell anybody. Let’s keep this quiet. I don’t want anyone to hurt you,’” Matsuura says. “Why should it be a mother’s fear that someone would hurt her child?”
But the anti-discrimination ordinance Matsuura is pushing has generated a lot of opposition. Critics say it could end up violating the religious liberty of some business owners. Rick Larsen is a columnist for the local newspaper in Pocatello and, like about 50 percent of the county, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I don’t think anyone should be discriminated for anything,” Larsen says. “But I just have a problem when we start modifying all of the conventions and rules and laws and ordinances to affirm the lifestyle.”
The city council vote in Pocatello is expected to be close. When I met Mayor Brian Blad at his office he was still undecided.
“I’m not confident that it is the city’s responsibility,” says the mayor. “I can discriminate in Chubbuck, but I can’t discriminate in Pocatello. I can go to Coeur d’Alene and discriminate, but I can’t go to Boise and discriminate. It doesn’t make any sense. So it’s a state issue if you ask me.”
In downtown Pocatello, Hailey Ruso is having her hair done. Ruso is a transgendered woman. She says she’s dealt with looks and comments, and was once asked to leave a clothing store. I ask if she’s noticed a change locally as opinion has shifted on national scale.
“I don’t think so,” she says.
But Ruso’s stylist jumps in and says, “See and I think it is.”
“You think it is? Okay maybe in the young people,” Ruso says. “My kids’ friends are the ones who are accepting. Their parents are the the ones staying away.”
Tom Nestor, the stylist, also runs a local gay rights group. He says the debate over the ordinance has changed Pocatello.
“By it being talked about. You know, the two people who were beat? Yeah, I think it’s bringing it up and it’s being talked about and talked about loudly.”
Richard, one of the men who was attacked, has mostly healed now.
“Yeah, you have to look really – one side of my cheek is more indented than this …”
But here’s the thing: Richard isn’t convinced it was a hate crime because there were no gay slurs and he and his attacker had just been arguing about something else.
“I don’t want to say it was because we were gay … because I don’t know,” he says.
I asked him if he supports passage of the ordinance.
“You can’t ask me that!” he says. “All my friends will hate me when I say: No. I don’t believe … It’s a feel-good law. Maybe it’s a step in getting people’s acceptance. But I’m not sure.”
Richard is thinking about getting a concealed weapons permit so he’ll be more prepared next time. The hardest part of reporting the attack to police, he says, was writing his name next to the line that said “victim.” He doesn’t care if people know he’s gay.