Only a day after Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay, the wheels were already turning in the state capitol.
State senator Scott Sifton, a democrat representing Affton, spoke on the senate floor to urge the passage of the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, or MONA. The bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Missouri’s Human Rights Statute, which already protects other categories, like race, biological sex and familial status. For example, people can’t be legally denied housing because they have a child. Almost all of the categories are protected from discrimination in the work place, housing and in public accommodations, like buses or restaurants.
Sifton said he saw Sam as the “perfect illustration.
“The Mizzou football team needed him in order to be able to compete and when, when other gay Missourians in other walks of life are excluded from the workplace it inhibits our competitiveness," Sifton said. "We need all Missourians to achieve their full potential to be able to compete as a state.”
The nondiscrimination act is nothing new. MONA has been introduced every session for over a decade. This will be Senator Jolie Justice’s eighth year introducing MONA in the senate.
Last year, MONA passed through the Senate but failed to reach the house floor.
Justus, the senate minority leader and first openly gay member of the Missouri senate, says she hopes Sam’s openness about his sexuality will be part of the momentum to finally pass the bill.
“We’ll still have detractors," Justus said. "We’ll still have people that are concerned about it. We’ll still have a lot of ‘no’ votes. My hope is that we have a critical mass now of individuals who understand that this isn’t a special right, this is just equal right for everyone regardless of who they love.”
According to a study from the Williams Institute at the University of California, 160,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Missourians would benefit from a state-wide law like MONA.
Right now only eight cities and counties in Missouri have nondiscrimination ordinances that include both sexual orientation and gender identity. Columbia is the only city in mid-Missouri with an ordinance.
So what does it mean to be unprotected? Under the current law someone can be fired from a job or kicked out of a restaurant for being LGBT, or seeming to be LGBT.
In February 2012, a Catholic school in St. Louis County fired a music teacher when he planned to marry his partner of 20 years, even though the relationship was not a secret. St. Louis County passed a non-discrimination provision later that year.
But according to Representative Stephen Webber, who’s on his fifth year of introducing MONA in the Missouri House of Representatives, the hard part of passing it has not been opposition from the public, but from lawmakers.
“I think that it’s an issue that society has moved on faster than government leaders," Webber said. "The majority of people are very comfortable just saying that nobody should be fired for being gay. That nobody should be kicked out of public accommodations for being gay and the general assembly just isn’t there yet but we’re getting closer.”
For Missouri LGBT advocacy organization, PROMO, it seems the news of Michael Sam has been increasing the interest in nondiscrimination laws. Katie Stuckenschneider is the communications organizer for PROMO. She says the organization and MONA have gotten increased media attention since Sam came out.
“I think even somebody, especially in a sport such as football, for him to come out and to do that and to hit the media cycle like that, first it just creates awareness…what we see is that awareness hits everywhere," Stuckenschneider said. "It hits these rural areas. It’s hitting all across Missouri and it may change people’s opinions just based on one thing.”
Like Senator Justus and Representative Webber, Senator Sifton says he hopes the bill will gain momentum from Sam’s announcement.
“I would love to see the state that he so ably and proudly represented on the football field to make an enormous step forward in protections for LGBT Missourians as a result of what he did,” Sifton said.
In the past week, sponsoring lawmakers have introduced MONA in the Missouri House and the Senate.