Scottsdale discrimination case shines light on LGBT inequality

A restaurant in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale is facing a discrimination allegation by two former employees filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January. (Independent Newsmedia/Melissa Fittro)

A formal case of discrimination for sexual orientation has emerged in Scottsdale.

In January the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a complaint against 5th and Wine, a downtown Scottsdale wine bar, on behalf of two employees who allege long-term harassment for being gay that culminated in the dismissal of one employee while the other quit.

The EEOC filing has thrust the issue of equality in the city of Scottsdale back into the forefront of political minds.

Scottsdale City Council in August 2015 voted to allow city staff to pursue a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender nondiscrimination ordinance. A year earlier, in 2014, the entire council signed a “Unity Pledge.”

But a work session discussion last March left some wondering why the city of Scottsdale would not join other Arizona municipalities — including Phoenix, Tempe, Tucson and Flagstaff — and become the 226th American city to officially adopt a nondiscrimination ordinance to protect members of the LGBT community.

In June of 2015, the city of Scottsdale sent a letter to 88,000 utility customers encouraging residents and proprietors to sign the pledge and join the council in its support of LGBT rights. A member of city council says close to 50 hateful letters were sent back to the city following the UNITY Pledge effort, which for some on the local governing board convinced them of the need for civil protections.

But with no evidence of any LGBT discrimination, city leaders were reticent to pursue a citywide ordinance providing workplace protections for all employees within city limits.

Scottsdale municipal employees already enjoy LGBT workplace protections. In December 2007 the city adopted Ordinance No. 3765, which prohibits any city employee from discriminating against another employee based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

While the Supreme Court has ruled same-sex marriage legal throughout the nation, the future of a workplace LGBT protection ordinance remains doubtful in Scottsdale.

Last year the potential for a new ordinance was created but with language that would disqualify the majority of businesses within city limits.

The 2016 proposal would not have applied to 92 percent of all businesses within the city. In addition, the proposed legislation made exemptions for an estimated 86 percent of Scottsdale businesses with fewer than 15 employees that serve customers and are open to the public.

A case for equality

Angela Hughey, ONE Community president and co-founder, says the recent EEOC complaint shows, in plain view, that LGBT discrimination occurs.

Angela Hughey

“This complaint speaks to why we need municipal ordinances or to update our statewide nondiscrimination policy,” she said in a Feb. 14 phone interview. “This is an important discussion that we need to have we should be a state that wants to treat everyone fairly.”

ONE Community, which began in 2008, has evolved into a member-based coalition of socially responsible businesses, organizations and individuals who support and promote diversity, inclusion and equality for all Arizonans, officials there say.

In February 2013, ONE Community launched the UNITY Pledge — which the city of Scottsdale participated — a concerted effort by Arizona businesses and individuals to advance workplace equality and equal treatment in housing and public accommodations for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals.

Ms. Hughey points to the introduction of two bills at the Arizona Legislature meant to amend the statewide nondiscrimination — a document that hasn’t been updated since 2008 and does not speak to LGBT protections — ordinance as a step in the right direction.

“There were bills introduced by Rebecca Rios (D) and Katie Hobbs (D). There have been bills introduced to update our statewide non-discrimination policies every year since 2008,” she pointed out. “As it is currently, this has been left on the shoulders of the municipality. The bills that were introduced to update the current nondiscrimination law to include sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Ms. Hughey says tourism revenues keep Arizona coffers flowing with dollars and cents.

“From a business standpoint, from the tourism standpoint, remember that tourism is our No. 1 economic driver, we want to put our best foot forward in our state,” she explained of how public perceptions impact economic opportunities. “We are at a competitive disadvantage.”

Evan Greer, a Boston-based transgender activist, says the most important aspect to grasp when it comes to equality of all Americans is there are no federal protections for LGBT individuals.

“Most people in the country can be fired based on their sexual preference,” she said in a Feb. 14 phone interview. “That is one of the most serious forms of discrimination our community faces.”

Ms. Greer, who is the campaign manager for Fight for the Future, also is a notable activist folk singer with a Phoenix performance planned for 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23 at The Listening Room, 4614 N. 7th St. in Phoenix.

Ms. Greer says her music and her career — Fight for the Future is a nonprofit organization founded in 2011 with a mission to ensure the internet continues to allow freedom of creativity and expression — is meant to fight for equality for all Americans.

“That is really one of the most important things that we can have and that we need to protect,” she said of a person’s right to work for a living.

“There are plenty of established statistics out there that speak to the degree of discrimination members of the LGBT community faces — especially transgender people. It is outrageous to hear that people think job discrimination doesn’t happen; that just isn’t supported by data.”

A view of Scottsdale City Council during a recent study session discussion. (Independent Newsmedia/Melissa Fittro)

Word at City Hall

Scottsdale City Council has no plans to begin talks anew regarding an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance, but the Scottsdale Human Relations Commission Monday, Feb. 13 began talks on a possible recommendation to city leaders to discourage discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“In Scottsdale, we celebrate our differences and respect that we all want the same thing: to live, work, and raise our kids in an environment free of harassment and intimidation,” said members of the commission in a joint statement.

“Regardless of a person’s cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, or gender identity, or other differences the rights of all in Scottsdale are respected equally.”

While Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips acknowledges the EEOC discrimination case he says a knee jerk reaction is not something within Scottsdale’s best interests.

Guy Phillips

“One question would be if the two were harassed as employees by their employer why did he hire them in the first place?” he said in a Feb. 14 statement. “If this case finds the defendant guilty it would be the only case I know about in Scottsdale since I have lived here and one case does not a law make.”

But Councilman Phillips does say he is willing to discuss a happy medium in terms of crafting a local ordinance to explore LGBT protections in the workplace.

“I certainly think that is possible if it allows both sides to weigh in on any new regulation or law,” he said. “For a council to draft up a law without representation from the LGBT community and local business could possibly end up hurting both sides.”

Councilman Phillips points out without more evidence of LGBT discrimination it’s hard to say what is really happening in Scottsdale workplaces.

“I’m sure there are those within the LGBT community who would say, ‘yes,’” he said in response to being asked if discrimination occurs in Scottsdale.

“Historically, there hasn’t been any actual accounts recorded except for the new 5th and Wine one, as far as I know. I like to believe Scottsdale is all inclusive by nature and if there is any prejudice to any group it would be manifested by the public in the form of boycotts, protests or media, which would put that particular person to shame and/or out of business. If we had rampant reports and lawsuits alleging discrimination then it would certainly get the attention of the local government to see what if anything we can or should do about it.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte says she is not holding her breath for any new movement in the creation of an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance.

“Given the fact the election back in November resulted in no changes on the council. On a practical level, the answer is, ‘no,’” she said Feb. 14 in response to being asked if anything will emerge from City Hall following the EEOC court case.

“Unless there is some momentum at the state level I don’t see where the city of Scottsdale is going to change its path. For us to pretend or say that discrimination doesn’t happen, I believe those individuals are not looking at reality. They have never walked in the shoes of those who have been discriminated against.”

The rainbow flag is a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pride and LGBT social movements in use since the 1970s with colors representing sexuality, life, healing, sunlight, nature, art, harmony and spirit. (Photo courtesy of Ludovic Bertron at Flikr.com)

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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