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W.Va. businesses back legal protections for gays

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Visions Day Spa owner Ted Brightwell worked at a hotel bar in the 1970s, a hotel official fired him because he is gay.

"An expert came into the bar area I was practically running -- he was a homophobic -- and said, 'I don't want your kind here,' and I couldn't do anything about it," Brightwell, 58, said Tuesday. "It's not about who you are, it's about the type of work you do, and that's what it should be about."

Brightwell said he wants workers today to have the "tools to fight that I didn't have back then."

That's why Brightwell -- and more than 200 other West Virginia business owners, organizations and faith groups, according to a civil-rights advocacy group -- support House Bill 2856, the Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Act. The act would add gays to other minorities protected by the state Human Rights Act, protecting them from being fired or evicted because of their orientation.

Lawmakers in the House Energy, Industry and Labor/Economic Development and Small Business Committee are expected to discuss the bill for the first time Wednesday.

"With this act, if somebody says, 'I want to fire you because you're gay,' they have the support system and legal right to do something about that," Brightwell said. "Right now they don't have that support, and they have to accept it."

West Virginia is one of 29 U.S. states that allow individuals to be fired because of sexual orientation, said Scott Jarrell, corporate outreach and development director for Fairness West Virginia, a statewide advocacy group that promotes civil rights and fair treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.

Businesses that don't support HB2856 are missing out on a pool of people who could be beneficial to them, Jarrell said.

"By businesses including sexual orientation in their own literature, that's going to attract more people to apply for those jobs," Jarrell said. "It's no question that the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community definitely supports those companies that support them. They will want to help make the business better because they know the business supports them."

If HB2856 were to become law, West Virginians wouldn't have to leave the state to seek jobs that aren't biased toward their sexual orientation, he said.

There are more than 57,000 LGBT residents in the state.

Josh McGrath, a broker owner at Real Estate Central in St. Albans, said he wouldn't want any one of them to feel uncomfortable working for him.

The National Association of Realtors amended its code of ethics in 2011 barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. All of Real Estate Central's employees are members of the association, McGrath said.

"It leads to a healthy work environment and you're able to retain and attract good-quality employees," McGrath said.

Maura Kistler, co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville, said she supports equal employment opportunities because it's expected of business owners.

And it's the right thing to do, she said.

"I'd be a terrible business owner if I didn't reach out to everybody equally. It's wrong to discriminate, and it's also just bad business," Kistler said.

The message that HB2856 sends to the rest of the country is that West Virginia is a fair and tolerant state when it comes to workers' rights, she said.

Gay individuals wouldn't "have to worry about their job being terminated for a reason not related to job performance," Kistler said.

"If they're bad at their job, fire them," she said. "If they're gay, leave them alone."

Pies & Pints co-owner Rob Lindeman, who was asked why the restaurant supports nondiscrimination in employment, said, "the bigger question is, Why wouldn't we?"

Businesses are a reflection of society, Lindeman said. Discriminating against anyone because of their sexual orientation is not a business's place, he said.

"It's just the right thing to not discriminate. If someone is a good employee, they're a good employee," he said.

Freedom from discrimination is a fundamental right, said Angela Vance, legislative liaison for the state AARP. She said AARP supports HB2856 and urges "West Virginia to become more inclusive by adopting the proposed measure."

Jarrell said Fairness West Virginia is blown away by the support of the 200 businesses, nonprofits and religious congregations in the state.

"The businesses that have stepped forward to show their support have been overwhelming, and it has been progress all around the state," Jarrell said. "This act will give individuals comfort in knowing they aren't going to be singled out because of who they love, they are going to be looked at solely for how good they are at what they do."

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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