Earlier this year during the legislative session we had a debate in North Dakota over legislation – Senate Bill 2279 – which would have added homosexuals to the state’s list of protected classes.
Supporters of the legislation told us that it was necessary because discrimination against gays is common in the state. They told us that without the law our state would be hurt economically as gays sought opportunity and prosperity elsewhere.
Opponents of the legislation – including this observer – didn’t quite see things that way. Claims of discrimination and ostracism seemed exaggerated and lacking evidence beyond vague anecdotes.
Regardless, the legislation was defeated. Now comes an interesting profile of homosexuals living in the state – particularly in the very rural and very conservative western region – by Bismarck Tribune reporter Lauren Donovan and it seems to back up what opponents of SB2279 have been saying.
Outside of the actions of a few isolated, marginalized cranks the attitude of most North Dakotans towards gays seems to be tolerance and acceptance. Couple that with a lack of evidence to support the idea of widespread and pervasive discrimination against gays from supporters of SB2279 and you get the idea that North Dakota is a place where gays are as free to live and prosper as anywhere else.
Which isn’t to say the state couldn’t use some reforms. I hope very soon that voters or lawmakers will get the opportunity to end the state’s prohibition on gay marriage. In fact, if voters got the opportunity to vote on the issue today, I’d wager that such a ballot measure would get majority support.
That’s progress, because it less than a decade ago that the state’s voters passed a constitutional prohibition on gay marriage.
Progress which could be undone by legislation that, far from protecting gays, imposes mandatory acceptance of homosexuality on private individuals who could have faced legal repercussions for, say, refusing to photograph a gay wedding.
Concepts like tolerance and acceptance cut both ways. You can’t demand those things for yourself while being unwilling to grant them to those you disagree with.
Back in April I wrote in a column about this issue that often political solutions to social injustices lag behind social change. “y the time the political majorities emerged to endorse that sort of reform, the support for the discrimination it was intended to address was already waning,” I wrote.
I see that as true in North Dakota today. The businessowners choosing to openly discriminate against gays are likely choosing, by extension, to lose a significant amount of business. Not because of any law but because of the choices of people in a deeply red, deeply conservative who for the most part don’t believe that discrimination against homosexuals is right.
We should celebrate that change in attitude, and be thankful that it wasn’t forced by legislation. Social change is more meaningful, more peaceful, when it’s a choice instead of a mandate.