PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — With the help of a statewide organization, a group of citizens on Monday launched a campaign to pass a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Nineteen residents gathered in the executive conference room at the Parkersburg Municipal Building with representatives of Fairness West Virginia, a civil rights organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, to discuss how they could get Parkersburg to follow nine other municipalities in the Mountain State in passing such an ordinance.
City Councilwoman Kim Coram said she’s looking for two other sponsors to put the item on a future council agenda.
“I have legislation that’s been drafted by an attorney in the community that I plan to introduce,” she said.
“If it doesn’t pass, the citizens can do a petition drive to get it on the ballot,” Coram added later.
Before that, a group headed by city residents Denise Halasz and Ashley Way-Fankhauser will reach out to businesses, houses of worship and civic organizations to ask for their support.
Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said a nondiscrimination ordinance would add “sexual orientation and gender identity” to the classes protected under West Virginia’s Human Rights Act, along with gender, age, race and disability.
“This is only about providing fair and equal protection for all,” he said.
The ordinance would prohibit discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations, Schneider said. Under state law, public accommodations include “any establishment or person … which offers its services, goods, facilities or accommodations to the general public, but shall not include any accommodations which are in their nature private.”
“Any business that serves the general public has to serve the whole public under these nondiscrimination laws,” Schneider said. “They can’t pick and choose who their customers are.”
Houses of worship are exempt, he said.
Although gay couples have been granted the right to marry, nondiscrimination protection has not been extended to them at the federal or state level, Schneider said. Fairness West Virginia advocates for changes in the law at the state and local level, with the hope that more of the latter will influence the former.
“It’s not just about protecting your residents and your citizens immediately,” Schneider said. “It’s about the long-term game.”
Way-Fankhauser said she invited Fairness West Virginia to Parkersburg and she was pleased with Monday’s turnout.
“I’m glad there was a lot of interest in it from allies, and it wasn’t just the LGBT community,” she said.
Way-Fankhauser fought back tears when discussing her reasons for wanting the ordinance passed, referring to her unborn children.
“I just want a better world for them,” she said.
Some of those there said they wanted to find out more about the issue and whether existing law provided the protections being sought. Others were already in full agreement with the proposal.
“I want to be able to say that I’m proud of my state and proud of my community,” said Parkersburg resident Cassie Cline.
One man said he opposed discrimination but questioned whether government should dictate such moral decisions.
Schneider said in addition to being fair, such an ordinance is economically beneficial, pointing to PayPal’s recent decision not to open a facility in North Carolina after a bill said to limit anti-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals and requiring transgender people to use bathrooms conforming to their sex at birth was passed.
“The West Virginia Division of Tourism couldn’t come up with a better ad campaign than making West Virginia the 20th state to adopt an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance,” he said.
Schneider said Fairness West Virginia will provide support to the effort to pass the ordinance in Parkersburg. Councilman J.R. Carpenter, who also attended the meeting, said he thought late May would be the earliest such an ordinance could be placed on the council agenda.