05:29 - Source: CNN
Opinion: Out at work in Mississippi

Story highlights

John Sutter: U.S. needs workplace protections for LGBT people

Twenty-nine states allow people to be fired for their orientation or gender identity

He says the lack of protection pushes people into the closet

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a human rights and social justice columnist for CNN Opinion. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+.

He didn’t want them to know his secret.

Andre Cooley lives in Mississippi, one of 29 states where it’s legal for employers to fire a person for being gay. In that environment, why would he risk being out of the closet at work? Cooley grew up in foster care and wanted to give back. His job as a juvenile corrections officer was too central to his identity.

So he covered it up. The 27-year-old lowered his voice. Talked less with his hands. Pretended he was straight, all to protect himself.

But it didn’t work.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

On June 14, 2010, when he says his boyfriend became violent in his apartment, Cooley called the police. He didn’t think twice about it – not until a colleague responded to the call. That led Cooley’s bosses at the Forrest County Sheriff’s Office to find out about his sexual orientation. Three days later, despite the fact that he was listed as the victim in a police report and was off duty at the time, he was fired.

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Cooley said it’s because his boss found out he’s gay.

“From one day to the next you can have the best life, and at any point it can be taken away,” he told me, “just on the fact that you’re gay.”

Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee said Cooley was not fired because he is gay but because he had called police about more than one domestic dispute. The same could have happened to a woman who reported abuse by a man, he said.

In either case, it seems strange at best to punish a purported victim.

And McGee wouldn’t comment on Cooley’s assertion that a supervisor told him directly he had been fired because of his sexual orientation.

Our nation seems to have turned a corner on same-sex marriage, with the president, business leaders and even some prominent Republicans expressing their support. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear two same-sex marriage cases next week.

Overshadowed in the national debate about gay rights, however, is this: Federal laws protect workers from being discriminated against because of their sex, race, religion, national origin, age and disability – but not sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The general public thinks it’s broadly illegal to discriminate in the workplace – and it’s not illegal,” said Gary Gates, a distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute at UCLA’s law school. “And it means gay people who are subjected to very overt forms of discrimination and are harassed in the workplace have no legal recourse to file” a lawsuit in most states.

Put more directly: It’s technically legal for employers in 29 states, from Florida to Alaska, to place want ads saying, “Gays need not apply,” according to attorneys with whom I spoke.

To me, that’s more offensive than gays not being able to marry. And taken with a host of other legal shortcomings and cultural factors, it’s the reason I find Mississippi to be one of the worst states for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

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Cloud of fear

Earlier this year, I spent two weeks on a road trip through Mississippi, a state that ties with Oklahoma and Alabama for having the fewest protections for LGBT people, according to my analysis using CNN’s “LGBT rights calculator.”

On the trip, I realized that employment law is the most pressing issue – but it’s part of a suite of laws that help ensure LGBT people remain invisible.

These laws create a cloud of fear that hangs over the state.

In addition to allowing gay people to be fired because of who they are, without legal recourse, Mississippi is one of 29 states where LGBT people can be evicted simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; one of seven that bans adoption by same-sex couples; one of 18 that still keeps laws on the books that ban sodomy, even though the Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional in 2003; and, of course, one of 38 states that bans same-sex marriage.

It did so by a yes vote of 86%, the highest of any state.

It’s no coincidence Mississippi doesn’t have major gay pride events – and that LGBT rights marches often are attended by only a few brave people. To show up, many activists would risk their jobs and their homes.

They live in a state whose laws don’t protect them.

The Mississippi governor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this topic.

This lack of protection pushes people into the closet, where they’re more likely to suffer from mental illness and to contemplate suicide. For a variety of reasons, LGBT people are two to four times as likely to attempt suicide, studies show.

The organizer of a black gay pride event in Jackson told me the group wouldn’t hold a parade outdoors for fear they would be “stoned” by protesters.

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’It hasn’t gotten better’

On top of these troubling laws, in Mississippi there seem to be as many arguments against being openly gay as there are gay people.

Each has a story that can be taken as a reason to stay hidden.

Here are just a few people I encountered:

Edgar “Eddie” Sandifer, 83, came out at age 16 in rural Mississippi. Later, in the ‘70s, when Sandifer was living in Jackson, anti-gay groups threatened violence on his office, he said, because he was advocating for gay rights. To protect himself, he put the office phones on the floor, he said, so people outside wouldn’t see the lights on the phones blinking and wouldn’t know someone was there.

Destin Holmes, now 16, was in middle school when a teacher divided the class into two groups – boys versus girls – for a quiz game. The teacher told Destin, an out lesbian who dresses in baggy sweatshirts and track pants, to sit in the center of the class because she was neither male nor female, Destin told me. “Literally, there was girls on this half, the boys on this half – and I was in the middle,” she said. “Instead of participating and getting my grade for the day, I laid my head down (and) cried.”

Her grandmother, Jennifer Holmes, 55, said Destin was essentially kicked out of the school because she didn’t fit into the administration’s idea of what it means to be a girl.

The school superintendent “told me if she was going to dress like a boy, then she needed to fight like a boy – take it like a boy,” Jennifer Holmes said.

Maggie Griffin, the current superintendent, said she came into her position after the alleged offenses and had not been aware of them before I called her this week. All children, she said, including LGBT students, are welcome and supported in Moss Point. “She’s a child,” she said in reference to Destin. “That’s first and foremost. That is what we are concerned with most in the Moss Point school district – that all children, regardless of any situation … are still children and we are going to try to address our children’s needs as best that we can.”

On Thursday, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a demand letter telling the district to institute anti-discrimination policies and allow Destin to return to the school or face a possible federal lawsuit concerning her case. Stephanie Packer, the district’s spokeswoman, declined on Thursday to comment on that letter.

Finally, Jody Renaldo, 39, tears up when he talks about a friend who was abducted outside a gay bar in Biloxi, Mississippi, on New Year’s Eve 1999. Jamie Ray Tolbert was choked with Rollerblade laces and then strangled with a belt, according to news reports. His body was found in Alabama. The case was not treated as a hate crime, and some people denied his sexual orientation, but Renaldo and others in the gay community believe Tolbert was killed because of anti-gay bias. Renaldo started a gay rights organization, Equality Mississippi, in the name of his friend, Tolbert.

The group ran out of money and had to fold. Attitudes and laws haven’t changed much since then, Renaldo told me at his home in Pearl. “There’s always the stereotype: ‘It gets better,’ ” he said. “But it hasn’t gotten better in Mississippi.”

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’Modern-day lunch counter’

The larger history of discrimination also hangs heavy in Mississippi.

I watched on a gray-sky morning as 10 lesbians marched to the Forrest County courthouse, in the southeast part of the state, to ask for marriage licenses, which they, of course, knew would be denied them under state law.

The women took the protest seriously. They woke up early to dress up for the occasion, dug through boxes to find the appropriate forms of identification, just in case, and contemplated the ramifications of being newly out to their families and employers and landlords in a state where that is both legally and culturally risky. As I watched them walk past a Confederate monument and enter an orange-brick building where African-Americans in the 1960s were arrested for demanding equal voting rights, it was hard not to see the parallels.

Mississippi has long been a place that resists change.

The women walked up to the counter in the courthouse two by two.

“We’d like to apply for a marriage license.”

And, two by two, their rights were denied.

“So, this is what it’s like?” said one of the applicants, Lynn “L.B.” Bell, 43, a soft-spoken farmer and physician who is legally married to her partner, Sara Bell, 31, in Connecticut, but who receives none of those rights here because they’re both women.

“This is the modern-day lunch counter.”

The reference to sit-ins during the civil rights movement could not have been lost on the clerk, Lou Ellen Adams, who wrote “denied” in neat cursive on top of the marriage application and passed it across the counter to L.B. and Sara.

“This would take an act of the Legislature to change this,” the clerk said calmly.

“Yes, ma’am, but we have to start somewhere.”

While country music played gently in the background and sheriff’s deputies watched from the wings, two clerks asked the couples some innocent but awkward questions and logged addresses, phone numbers and relatives’ names on a computer.

They chatted about the weather and about mutual friends. One official turned out to be L.B.’s neighbor. L.B. didn’t mention to the clerk that she and Sara are trying to have a baby by in vitro fertilization, and that they worry the nonbiological mother could lose custody down the road since Mississippi bans gay adoption.

It was a sobering scene. But for me it also provided evidence LGBT people across the country one day will be treated as equal.

Adams, the county circuit clerk, didn’t want to discuss her personal thoughts on gay rights or same-sex marriage. But it was clear to me she was moved by the demonstration. That it at least made her stop and think.

When Barbara “Bee” Nell Foster walked to the counter with her partner, Amanda Simmons, 30, she told Adams she felt like Rosa Parks might have when she was ordered to sit in the back of the bus.

The clerk’s response: “Well, one day you may be in the history books.”

Foster, 31, was only out of the closet to one of her family members before the protest. She vomited the night of the demonstration because she was so anxious about their reactions. Her mother, Foster said a week or so after the January event, had cried every day since. But if one person’s mind was changed because of her actions, Foster said it was worth the nerves and friction. “I know it hurt a lot of people,” she said, “but it got 31 years of hurt off of me.”

Some family members and friends, she said, called to say they support her. They know her as Bee the homecoming queen, the rugby captain, the girl who played drums and trumpet in the band. Many of them also support her as Bee the lesbian.

“I think I changed a lot of people’s views,” she said, “because they know me as Bee.”

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’Closets are for clothes’

It’s easy to look at the laws in Mississippi and assume it’s somewhat of a national outlier – an often-stereotyped place that’s stuck in another time. In many ways its laws reflect the rest of the country, however. And when you meet people like Foster, you realize it’s not so different. Despite all the negative examples, I found plenty of reason for hope on my trip to Mississippi. The longer I stayed in the state the more I realized that there are people pushing for change here – and have been for decades.

They’re some of the bravest people I’ve come across.

Sandifer, the 83-year-old activist, uses a walker to get around but still has a wit far sharper than mine. He held gay rights demonstrations at the state Capitol, created programs to help HIV-infected people and now volunteers with an organization called My Brother’s Keeper, which recently opened the state’s first clinic focused on LGBT health issues, including safer sex.

Perhaps his most effective act, however, is just being out.

“I learned at 12 that closets are for clothes and not for people,” he told me.

His legacy is carried on through Cedric Sturdevant, another worker at My Brother’s Keeper. There are no homeless shelters for gay kids in Jackson, but Sturdevant, 47, has taken it upon himself to let them stay with him so they don’t have to live on the streets if their parents disown them. It’s part of an underground railroad of sorts for gay kids in Mississippi’s capital. Sturdevant said more than 20 people have stayed in his home over the years until they found jobs or got back on their feet.

“I feel like God saved me,” said Sturdevant, who nearly died several years ago from complications with HIV, “and he didn’t save me to be quiet.”

“Right now, this is the place God wants me to be.”

’An opportunity for greatness’

Cooley, the corrections officer who says he was fired simply because of his sexual orientation, is another one of Mississippi’s gay rights heroes.

A bubbly character who wears bright-colored shirts and a Tony-the-Tiger smile, Cooley has made people in his community aware of their discriminatory laws.

That’s because he sued the county, asking for his job back.

In the absence of a solid law, clever attorneys have found a few other ways to bring forward legal cases from LGBT people who have been discriminated against on the job. One bit of legal smarts allowed Cooley to file a complaint against Forrest County.

Because he worked for the government, not a private company, he was able to argue that he was protected by the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Such protections wouldn’t extend to private employees.

The day after he was fired, Cooley called every attorney he could find, “from the Delta to the coast,” trying to figure out a way to get his job back.

He found attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union who took the case.

Cooley received an undisclosed financial settlement, including back pay. The county also instituted an anti-discrimination policy in response.

Perhaps most significant for Cooley, he got his job back, too.

That may seem counterintuitive: Why would a person want to work at the place that fired him? It mattered to Cooley because he grew up in foster care and feels called to give back to people who are struggling. He tells inmates and offenders that, “Even if you come from nothing, you have the opportunity for greatness.”

He uses himself as an example.

Cooley’s boldness proves that gay people do exist in a state whose laws seem intent on keeping them hidden – on stopping them from speaking out.

Being gay is “something you wouldn’t necessarily discuss in Mississippi,” he told me. “I honestly believe Mississippi hides behind this notion that gay people aren’t here and that discrimination and oppression – like, it isn’t real.”

It is, of course.

And it’s all the more reason the country should focus on full equality under the law for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. It’s time to recognize LGBT rights for what they really are: human rights.

Otherwise, it will remain risky for people like Cooley to speak up.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.