Gay nominee to rights panel urges 'understanding'

July 22, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

As Human Rights Commission nominee Jan Nyquist emerged from her 4 1/2 -hour confirmation hearing Monday night, she was asked how she felt.

"About being a target, you mean? It could have been harder," the Columbia woman said. "Those were genuine concerns people had."

County Executive Charles I. Ecker appointed Ms. Nyquist to the commission in June as a representative of the gay community. Since then, she and her family have suffered "renewed harassment," she told council members at her confirmation hearing.

She did not give details other than to say, "Just this week, my oldest son received a hateful phone call after midnight from one of his peers." She said such harassment only reinforced her willingness to serve on the commission.

Ms. Nyquist said she hoped her testimony and that of her supporters allayed the fears of her opponents.

"Hopefully, some of those concerns were dispelled," she said. "If not, hopefully they will be by my confirmation and my actions. I knew what I was going to face when I said, 'Yes.' I guess I knew when I first approached Dr. Ecker. And still I decided to serve."

When Ms. Nyquist spoke to Mr. Ecker in June about the need to appoint a gay person to the Human Rights Commission, she was not lobbying for herself. She wanted him to nominate gay activist Robert Healy to the commission. But when she finished, Mr. Ecker asked if she would be willing to be nominated.

The council will vote on Ms. Nyquist's nomination July 27.

Experiencing abuse is nothing new, Ms. Nyquist said. As a child, she was repeatedly subjected to physical violence and verbal abuse because hers was the only Jewish family in the town where she grew up, she said.

"After I realized that I was gay and decided to live out of the closet in an open life-style as a gay person, I found myself and my family facing a new discrimination," she said. "My children have been harassed, being called names like 'faggot' as the direct result of prejudice."

Ms. Nyquist said her commitment to fighting discrimination and prejudice has led her to speak out whenever she perceives intolerance or hatred.

"I want to begin a campaign to teach understanding rather than hate," she told council members. "Whether or not I am appointed, I will continue to try and teach those people whose paths cross mine that hatred, prejudice, and bigotry only lead to our perpetuating discrimination in our lives and the lives of our children and must be stopped."

Of the 46 people who followed her to the speaker's rostrum, 35 supported her, 10 opposed her nomination, and one called for the commission to hold a session to air the "legitimate concerns of both sides."

Supporters portrayed Ms. Nyquist as a sensitive, compassionate woman so dedicated to the cause of civil rights that if it were not for her sexual orientation, her nomination would be applauded. Since county law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, that fact of Ms. Nyquist's life should not be considered, supporters said.

Rabbi Martin Siegel, leader of the Columbia Jewish Congregation, where Ms. Nyquist serves on the board of directors, said her confirmation has within it the power to heal divisions in the community.

"Let us love one another," he said. "Let us live together and work together to make this a better place. I know Jan Nyquist can do that. By confirming her, you can make this a real community, because it will show it can love that which is different."

Opponents also used the love theme, but with a different twist. You can love people without loving their actions, they said.

"Discrimination is not hatred of a thing, but hatred of people," said Kathy Black of Ellicott City. "There are many beliefs I hate with a passion, and many people I love with a passion."

Ms. Black said that although she thought Ms. Nyquist was "a beautiful person," the council should not confirm her.

Other opponents questioned whether Ms. Nyquist would be as concerned for the rights of everyone as for the gay community. "We need appointees to be selected who will for the next five years be entrusted with meeting the special needs of every person who seeks redress before this commission," said the Rev. Lainie Dowell of Columbia.

Ms. Dowell delivered one of the sharpest attacks of the night.

Opponents "see a done deal, and are reluctant to come forward," she said. "There is a right and there is a wrong. Homosexual acts are wrong. The broader issue is how far a person can go with a lifestyle in this community. The county has become lopsided in its thinking. When you try to teach my children that it's all right to co-habit with the same sex, I become very concerned. Never again must we allow such laws as pertains to homosexuals to go on the books."

Some opponents, who identified themselves as Christians, said they felt they were being discriminated against because the council earlier rejected the Rev. Dana Walter Collett as a commission member on what foes believe were religious grounds.

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