Gay rights in Connecticut: big impact, few cases

Connecticut’s passage of a law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has produced just a trickle of cases over the past two decades, not the flood of frivolous complaints predicted by opponents then and cited as a reason now to block a federal law.

The state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities has averaged just 47 cases a year since the General Assembly passed the bill in 1991, starting with a low of 21 complaints the first year and reaching a high of 72 in 2007.

The U.S. Senate voted Thursday by a 2-1 margin to pass legislation that would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, promises to block passage in the House, saying it would lead to frivolous lawsuits.

In Connecticut, the numbers have roughly matched the expectations of legislative analysts, who predicted that sexual orientation complaints would not exceed 2 percent of the total CHRO caseload. That is about the same number of discrimination cases based on a complainant’s religion.

By far, race and color are the basis of the most complaints: more than 1,100 in 2010, the last year that CHRO published an annual report, followed by gender, physical disability, age and national origin. Employment cases far exceed those brought by people claiming discrimination in house or public accommodations.

Two prominent gay activists who fought for the state law in 1991, including one who came out that spring to bolster the case for passage, said passage was a dramatic statement, one that reached far beyond the number of cases it would eventually generate.

“An anti-discrimination law like this sends a message and sets a standard for employers,” said Leslie Gabel-Brett, who was the chairwoman of the CHRO in 1991. “We truly believe it prevents discrimination, because it sets a standard: ‘This is against the law. Don’t do it.’ ”

Over the past two decades, the number of Connecticut cases did not rise dramatically as the gay community became far more visible.

Gregg Adler, the Hartford employment lawyer who filed the first sexual orientation case in 1992, said the data suggest that employers and landlords have become more accepting of gays and lesbians as the community has become more visible.

His client in that first case was James K. Davis, a legal secretary at a prominent Hartford firm, Hoberman & Pollack. Davis claimed he was subjected to slurs such as “fag boy” before he eventually was fired without legitimate cause. The firm denied discrimination.

Adler said the case was settled, its terms confidential. Davis could not be reached for comment.

Gabel-Brett publicly declared her sexual orientation shortly before passage of the bill. At the time, the legislature had only one openly gay member, state Rep. Joseph Grabarz, D-Bridgeport. A year later, she announced a caucus of gay public officials. It had three members: her, Grabarz and a New Haven alderman, Michael J. Morand.

Michael P. Lawlor, who advocated for the bill as a young legislator not yet publicly identified as gay, said the impact of anti-discrimination bills often lies in their political and cultural impact.

“I think the symbolism of this stuff oftentimes is more important than the actual mechanics of it,” said Lawlor, who later became one of the strongest advocates for gay rights in the legislature as co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “I think that is part of the goal.”

In 1991, the concept of gay rights was far more controversial, and the gay community was far less visible. A year earlier, during a debate on a similar bill, a House member questioned the need, saying he had never met a gay person.

Such a claim was not possible during the 1991 debate, when Grabarz told the House,It’s not every day that someone gets to travel to their place of employment, as I did today, to hear their fellow co-workers and colleagues debate the protection of their civil rights and so if I actually appear a little nervous, I am.”

The House voted 81 to 65 to pass the law. One of the 17 Republicans to vote yes was M. Jodi Rell, the future governor. Democrats in support included Joe Courtney, now a congressman, and Nancy Wyman, now the lieutenant governor. A week later, the Senate followed suit, voting 21 to 14, with support from George Jepsen, now the state’s attorney general. Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. signed the measure into law.

Questions raised this year in Washington about what passage of the law would or wouldn’t mean were asked in 1991 in Hartford.

“Never have I seen a piece of legislation which was so misunderstood,” state Sen. Anthony Avallone, D-New Haven, said as he presented the bill. “I’ve never brought a bill out to this General Assembly and explained what it doesn’t do more than what it does do.”

In the House, one legislator conflated homosexuality with abuse of children, asking if an anti-discrimination law would give pedophiles a right to employment. State Rep. Alan Schlesinger of Derby, who would become the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 2006, said he could imagine many uncomfortable situations where a gay man might use the law to gain employment, such as a camp counselor.

“I just think there are too many and I think this legislation, although it is extremely well-intended, and by God, there shouldn’t be any discrimination against any people, I think this legislation can be misused and in some states has been misused and that’s why I have to vote no on this legislation,” Schlesinger said.

It was Grabarz, now a lobbyist whose clients include the ACLU, who responded, noting that a majority of abuse cases involve the demographic that comprises a majority of the population — heterosexuals.

“You know, the camp counselor, I think the basic assumption there is homophobic,” Grabarz said. “It’s, I’m sure, not intended, but I think those arguments in the past have been homophobic. Certainly if we were going to be protecting children based on sexual orientation, then the statistics really tell us that we should be passing laws discriminating against heterosexuals who work in institutions where children are kept.”

Fourteen years later, the pace of cultural and political acceptance of gays began to rapidly accelerate.

In 2005, Rell signed into law a bill granting civil unions to same-sex couples, a precursor to the Connecticut Supreme Court’s legalizing same-sex marriage in 2008. In 2010, Congress repealed the ban on gays serving openly in the military, and earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. In 2011, Connecticut expanded its anti-discrimination law to cover transgendered persons.

Gabel-Brett, who is now director of education and public affairs for Lambda Legal, a national gay rights group based in New York, said the Senate vote was “a political and cultural statement,” even if the U.S. House GOP leadership is not prepared to vote for final passage.

The bill lost by one vote when it first came up in the Senate in 1996, and a House version passed in 2007 only after the legislation was stripped of legal protections for transgendered individuals. The version passed Thursday covered discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

“That is an important statement about where we have traveled in this country politically,” said Gabel-Brett, who spoke by phone as she drove to an event in New Jersey marking the legalization of same-sex marriage. “The momentum is clearly on the side of LGBT rights.”

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