Gays hope to get Baltimore County legal protection Public hearings planned on extending rights laws

January 07, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

An article in The Sun Monday about gay rights in Baltimor County attributed some complaints about harassment of gays to the wrong person. Remarks about being dismissed from a job, being denied an apartment and about inconsistencies in discrimination laws should have been attributed to Michael Gatty.

The Sun regrets the error.

Michael Chase says he's been called nasty names, fired from a job and denied at least one apartment in Baltimore County.

All because he is gay.

County codes enacted to outlaw discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age or handicap have never been extended to protect lesbians and gay men in Baltimore County.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Mr. Chase and many other gay men and lesbian women are hoping that a series of public hearings in the next few weeks in Baltimore County will be the first step toward changing that.

The Baltimore County Human Relations Commission has scheduled public hearings for Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Randallstown High School and Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Perry Hall High School to help decide whether discrimination against homosexuals should be outlawed.

Testimony from the hearings will be the basis of the commission's report to the County Council, which will then decide whether it must amend its discrimination law, said John S. Singleton, commission director.

"In essence, what we're doing is studying the issue and using public hearings as part of that process," said Mr. Singleton.

Baltimore County created the Human Relations Commission in 1989 to replace the old Community Relations Commission, which had not met for two years and had no paid staff or subpoena powers.

The new 15-member commission was given power to conduct investigations, subpoena witnesses and documents for hearings and issue rulings that require remedial action.

The commission can order reinstatement of employees fired because of discrimination or sensitivity training for a boss who sexually harassed a subordinate. It also can require a landlord to rent to a tenant denied a lease because he is a minority.

Mr. Singleton said the commission has one full-time and one part-time investigator to enforce county codes that protect minorities, the aged and other groups against discrimination in housing, education, finance, public accommodations and on the job.

But in setting up the new commission, the County Council refused to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, Mr. Singleton said.

"We just didn't know enough at the time," said County Councilman Melvin Mintz, D-2nd.

Mr. Mintz, who chaired a volunteer group in the mid-1980s that looked into racism and extremism, said the county laws were modeled after state codes, which also failed to include lesbians and gay men in the list of those protected from discrimination. He acknowledged that the council may have to re-examine the issue.

"A gay person can be denied an apartment simply because he is gay. That's not illegal in Baltimore County. He can go into a food store and be ordered to leave because he's gay and it's not illegal," said Mr. Mintz. "Perhaps it's time to look at this issue again.

Mr. Singleton said in the past year about six gay men and women have called his office to complain about discrimination on the job or in the housing market. But he could do nothing for them.

In Maryland, such protection is guaranteed lesbians and gay men only in Baltimore City and in Montgomery and Howard Counties, he said. A similar measure also was recently passed in Pringe George's County, he said.

The Baltimore Community Relations Commission received a total 212 discrimination complaints in the year ending October 1990, but only 13 complaints about discrimination against homosexuals, a commission spokesman said.

But gay activists say that the number of incidents is actually much higher than the number of reported cases. They say many incidents go unreported because of confusion about what is legal and illegal.

"If you're fired from a job because you're gay in Baltimore County there's nothing you can do. In Howard County, it's illegal, in Baltimore, City it's illegal," said Mr. Chase.

John Hannay, chairman of the Baltimore Justice Campaign, which fights for civil rights for gay men and women, said his office is lining up volunteers to testify before the commission about incidents of harassment and discrimination.

Candidates include a physician denied an apartment because he is gay, two lesbians harassed by a restaurant owner because of their sexual orientation, a gay group being denied a hall for a concert and a high school student who will detail harassment by students and teachers, he said.

Mr. Hannay also hopes to line up statments of support from the same group of mainstream labor unions, community groups, business and professional organizations that publicly supported the gay rights legislation enacted in Baltimore in 1988.

"Our experience is that political leaders will move forward with these kinds of laws if it can be demonstrated to them that widespread support exists," he said.

Gay activists say that if nothing else, a law in Baltimore County would give lesbians and gay men a forum for filing complaints and may help change public attitudes.

Len Jackson, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Baltimore, said that anti-gay attitudes among teen-agers are so bad that many lesbian and gay teen-agers have dropped out of school. For that reason, he plans to start a high school equivalency diploma program in March.

A 19-year-old man who asked that his name be withheld said harassment got so bad at the Essex high school he attended that he eventually dropped out and left the community. He said problems started for him when he moved to Maryland from California, where "people seemed a lot more accepting."

"If you're marked gay in school around here, you get nothing but constant criticism from everybody," he said. "You face it every day."

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