By Susan Matsuura
Mothers are endowed with important qualities that affect our psyches. We want to protect our children from harm and we want them to be loved and accepted by others. Naturally, when my son first came out to me years ago, it was my recommendation to him to keep silent, tell no one. My fear? Someone, somewhere who hates gays will hurt or harm him or will judge him unfairly for a characteristic that has nothing to do with his ability to be a productive member of our society.
I am not naive enough to think a change in the laws will change the hearts of people, but history has shown that laws change before attitudes do. My son did not choose to be gay. I can think of few qualities that would open a person to more ridicule than being gay or transgender. That was my motivation to work so hard on this issue – to pass a law that prevents discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity in Pocatello and to make our city a welcoming place.
The journey came with obstacles
A key challenge in the campaign to adopt an ordinance came on the day of our first public hearing, April 4th, 2013.That day, an attorney with the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s American Religious Freedom Program was flown in from Washington, D.C. She met all day with city council members and religious representatives from selected churches. That evening citizens emptied their hearts in public testimony describing discrimination and daily hardships, exposing a very personal part of their lives in an open forum. This gave me the sense of what my son and other LGBT identified people face – that feeling of how life is unfair and unjust. Two weeks later, April 18th, the ordinance was defeated by a split council and the mayor broke the tie.
When politics and personal lives intersect and a minority loses, it is a deeply sad day. One of my favored authors and human rights activist is Elie Wiesel. His statements are impressed on my heart, “Once you bring life into the world, you must protect it. We must protect it by changing the world.” This was the mother in me reacting, but better said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1986, “Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must, at that moment become the center of the universe.”
Moments of hope
Along the way, there were also high points. When we first shared personal stories with city council members at a study session, we knew we had connected. A council member listened to the story and reacted, “Well, I know what I would do it if was my daughter … [who had been thrown out of an apartment because she was a lesbian.]” We had made the issue personal for him – a first success.
A second draft of the ordinance was presented to the council and the public at a study session in early May with both minor and major challenges. Although the community was tired, we rallied once again and were able to testify to the good parts of the ordinance and ask to amend the draft to take out the parts that were detrimental. The night of the second vote, council members heard the voices of the community and voted 4-2 with one council member shifting his position to create a majority of lawmakers in favor. I couldn’t believe what I heard. We had done it; it had passed. It had been 17 long months.
What mark has this left on my life
My most important “take away” from the whole process was becoming an ally and learning to speak out. It opened me up to criticism and made me vulnerable to those who oppose my position, but the experience has been amazing. I have had people I don’t know tell me that I spoke for them – they’ve taken my hand; they have said they’ve read about me in the newspaper and told me I am doing important work; they have called; they have bought me lunch (I like that part.) I can say I have been warmly welcomed and given a grand tour of Club Charley’s (Pocatello’s gay bar.) I’ve had people tell me I have changed the conversation in Pocatello forever.
Although finding my voice is not what I am best at doing, the ability to speak out from my depths of empathy and the understanding as a parent has been the best thing I have ever done. No regrets.