It's the Equality, Stupid

It was via e-mail that I became aware of the Equal Benefits Ordinance (EBO) that 1st District Councilperson Robert Garcia presented at the July 14 city council meeting. The proposal is quite simple: the EBO would "requir[e] that contractors doing business with the City demonstrate [that] they provide benefits for registered domestic partners that are equal to those provided for [legally-]married spouses," though with possible exemptions (for contracts below a minimum monetary threshold, ones that concern an "indispensable public service" that cannot be obtained through a contractor providing said equal benefits, etc.).

The e-mail urged residents to come to the meeting to speak on behalf of the EBO:

[W]e need your help to make sure that the entire City Council hears the voices of the LGBT community at the upcoming Council Meeting. We need everyone to come to City Hall to speak before the City Council as to why the city needs to enact this ordinance.

Did you spot the subtly mixed message in the above? The second sentence expresses the need for everyone to speak before the Council, but the first says that the Council needs to hear the voices of the LGBT community. I don't mean to drag you down to parsing hell. The spirit of what's being said is clear, and both sentences are perfectly apt: the Council does need to hear the voices of the LGBT community, and everyone should speak up on behalf of passing the EBO. But every instance of even intimating that such inequity is more about a given sub-community—here, the LGBT—than about all of us is a missed opportunity.

See, Garcia's proposal is not primarily a LGBT issue; it's about equality, period. The question of just who is being treated unequally is secondary. When any individual or group is being treated unequally, that issue equally concerns all of us who wish to live in an egalitarian society. The sooner society at large realizes that these issues concern "us" every bit as much as it concerns "them," the sooner the false 'us/them' dichotomy will be relegated to its proper place: as a curious historical relic from a less-enlightened time, a time when distinctions between groups were sometimes drawn for exclusionary purposes.

Vis-à-vis doing away with 'us/them,' 2nd District Councilperson Suja Lowenthal's co-sponsorship of the EBO may be more important than Garcia's. Since Garcia self-identifies as a member of the LGBT community, oppugners of the EBO can claim his proposal smacks of self-interest; but they cannot (ab)use the same logic to impugn Lowenthal's motives. As she commented for this column:

"This has always been about equal treatment—no more, no less. [. . .] I firmly believe that every person is entitled to the same rights and responsibilities in our society [. . .] I said as much in my second piece of legislation as a newly-elected council member calling for Marriage Equality: "It is an injustice upon every resident and community in the City of Long Beach when LGBT individuals and families may contribute to the fabric of our city but do not enjoy the liberties and protections provided to all persons, regardless of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation*."

*[Author's footnote: In the political parlance of the LGBT community, Lowenthal and myself are "allies" of the LGBT. While valid as far as it goes, it may also be a slightly misguided way to think about these ('other') people with concordant views on civil rights. Because, by definition allies are outsiders, sympathetic but separate. To think in terms of 'allies' is to some degree to accept the logic of those who would disallow equal benefits for non-heterosexual couples, to wit, that there is an us, and there is a them. After all, the necessary first step to discrimination is to demarcate the undivided whole, to draw a boundary that would not otherwise exist. The Himalayas are a natural boundary, the Mississippi River maybe, but there is no more a natural boundary between 'gay/straight' than there is between 'blond/brunette' or 'musician/non-musician.' I hardly need to point out that within the human community you find people with varying skill sets, varying physical traits, varying desires. Except perhaps when considering those who make conscious choices to harm others, rarely is there much good use in taking demarcations based on such variance at all seriously.]

Unfortunately, as we know from 47.55% of Long Beach residents voting "yes" on Proposition 8, our fellow non-LGBT denizens have yet to embrace equality with anything approaching a comfortable majority. Surely some of those "yes" votes emanated from simple bigotry, but the rest come from a failure to grasp that the emphasis on 'gay rights' is on rights and not gay. That adjustment would be a good first step—a step individuals are more likely to take when their city has already done so (in its business practices, etc.).

The next step would be our agreeing to eliminate adjectivals altogether in this type of discussion: "This matter concerns [sub-community name redacted] rights." Whose rights would not figure in the decision-making process, and the matter would be decided solely on the issue's merits—for example, whether those rights are good for us to have, or those business policies good for welcoming into our community companies who treat us as we would like to be treated*.

*[Author's footnote: This is merely an a posteriori extension of John Rawls's "veil of ignorance." For our present purposes, imagine that before being born (and thus before you had taken on your particular religious beliefs &c.) you were given the task of designing the system of laws, rights, etc., of the community into which you would be born—without any knowledge of what your particular role(s) in society would be. Will you be poor? handicapped? female? part of a minority? Behind such a "veil," would anybody really be willing to design things in such a way that (s)he has anything but the best possible chance at fairness, at equality, of having the basic benefits and protections enjoyed by others? (Certainly no one living in this world shows much interest in having fewer rights or benefits than anyone else.)]

One day the EBO will be rendered moot, as the provision formerly known as Proposition 8 will fall and the California Constitution will be cleaned of its most recent stain, allowing marriage to be marriage for all. But for the nonce the EBO is terribly relevant. It's something we as a City can do here and now so as not to reward contractors who are unwilling to treat us all equally. Post a sign at the front door: "No equality? Then please, no soliciting."

Am I being naive? In his current column, my colleague John Greet notes a New York Supreme Court ruling invalidating an EBO on the grounds that "the measure violated a state statute requiring public contacts to be awarded to the lowest bidder. The court concluded that a municipality may not withhold a contract simply because the lowest bidder does not offer equal benefits to domestic partners of its employees." A related issue is raised by former 7th District Councilperson Mike Donelon, whose concerns about the fiscal bottom line in these dire economic times are quoted in a July 12 Press-Telegram article: "Right now, every dollar seems to count for business. [. . .] Let's see what kind of economic impact [the proposed EBO]'s gonna have [before embracing it]."

I do not feel these issues ought to influence the ways in which we attempt to build and shape our community. Imagine that when we finally decide to reconfigure or dismantle the breakwater, the lowest bidder openly declares that 10% of all proceeds will go toward supporting the Nazi Party. If a court feels the need to mandate that we cannot bar any contractors based on open bigotry or discrimination, then let that decision not be on our heads. And if the cost of doing business is a little higher in an inequality-free zone, I hope we would pay the extra costs willingly, in the spirit that certain principles are not for sale.

We have some control over what happens within city limits, over whom we let in. (A useful use of boundary.) However much it is in our control, let us disallow inequality in Long Beach (and everywhere).

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