Bosses firing employees because they were gay. Landlords not renting to same-sex couples. Businesses refusing to serve people they suspected were gay or transgendered.
Before 2002, these situations could — and often did — happen in Salem without repercussions.
But in May of that year, the Salem City Council approved revisions to the city’s Human Rights Ordinance to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations (such as businesses, movie theaters and restaurants) based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
As a result, LGBT people who feel they are victims of discrimination can report the incident to the city’s Human Rights and Relations Advisory Commission, which can then investigate and potentially impose penalties on the perpetrator.
The transgender section of the ordinance earned Salem one point on The Advocate’s list of America’s gayest cities. Only eight of the 15 cities on the list have such protections. (Find a full list of jurisdictions with these protections on the Transgender Law & Policy Institute’s website.)
At the time Salem revised its ordinance, only about 40 cities and counties in the country protected LGBT people in their discrimination codes. New York, Boston and Chicago adopted similar protections the same year as Salem, and it was five years before the state of Oregon followed suit.
“It was becoming a very new and hot issue,” remembered Marilyn Johnston, who recently retired after almost 12 years as Salem’s human rights and relations coordinator. “But most people had never seen anyone who was transgendered, and we wondered whether we really had people like that in our community. The reality is that we do. …
“We were lucky that we had the support of both the (human rights) commission as well as the city council, and the feeling was that this was an extension of human rights.”
The commission introduced the idea of revising the ordinance after receiving complaints about discrimination against LGBT people in Salem.
We were lucky that we had the support of both the (human rights) commission as well as the city council, and the feeling was that this was an extension of human rights.
When the city council held a public hearing about the revisions, they heard an hour and a half of impassioned testimony from 30 community members, many of whom were gay or transgendered, about the need for protections. Many spoke of losing or fearing they would lose their jobs when their bosses learned they were gay, or of feeling afraid to reveal their true identity in public because of repercussions.
Only six people testified against the ordinance change. One was Lon Mabon, founder of Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), a conservative Christian political activist organization. The OCA sponsored multiple ballot measures in the late 1980s and early 1990s, trying to prevent government from granting what it called “special rights” for LGBT people.
Mabon testified that if Salem passed the ordinance, the OCA would bring forth a referendum asking Salem residents to repeal it.
His threat caused the councilors to ask the city’s legal counsel whether a referendum could occur. The response was that if they passed the ordinance with an emergency clause, it would not be subject to a referendum because it would go into effect before it could be sent to voters.
As the council debated the issue at a subsequent meeting, then-Mayor Mike Swaim called the ordinance “a matter of basic human dignity and civil rights.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to stand up, even in the weight of some public opinion, and do the right thing,” he said. “I think this is the right thing.”
Then he moved to add an emergency clause to the revisions. The council passed the ordinance with only two dissenting votes, from Councilors Wes Bennett and Brad Nanke.
“It seemed like so many of the problems abated after the ordinance passed,” Johnston said. “There are always some issues that arise — some people still perceive they have been discriminated against, and some people could care less whether there’s a protection. But honestly, this was a major step in fighting the feeling of insecurity for people who the ordinance pertained to.
“Having those protections says so much about a community, that our rights are respected here. … I was so proud in that position to be working for a city that had that ordinance.”
And the ordinance’s passage gained Salem a bit of national attention. Scott Hossner, a gay resident who testified at the public hearing, saw an article in the Human Rights Campaign’s magazine about the trend of cities including transgendered people in their human rights ordinances.
“They listed cities that, at that time, had transgender protections, and there were only like eight cities on their list, and they were all big cities like Chicago, San Francisco and L.A. And then Salem, Oregon,” Hossner said. “There may have been others that they didn’t choose to list, but to be among those they chose, it was like, ‘Wow.’ It was so cool that we were ahead of the curve on a transgender-inclusive policy.”
Johnston remembered Salem also appearing on a list of the country’s top tolerating cities, put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program.
“I would often show that list to the (human rights) commission to re-energize them about the task at hand,” she said, “and to remind them that we were about giving people that feeling that when they come to Salem, it’s a safe place to be.”
Sarah Evans is co-editor of Salem Is.
Other Stories in the Series
The Advocate says our city is one of the gayest in America. What do local residents think?
Salem native Scott Hossner says he has found a fulfilling gay community in the Cherry City.
Rob Owen, a relative newcomer to the city, questions The Advocate’s reporting — and its conclusion.
In the middle of the largely non-religious state of Oregon, Salem has many churches that reach out to the gay community.
Salem’s roller derby teams are accepting of everyone, LGBT and otherwise.