Baltimore County's Human Relations Commission made a compelling statement last week in recommending that the County Council amend a local anti-discrimination law to include sexual orientation as a protected category. Currently, the commission has the power to investigate claims of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, age, color, creed, handicap or national origin. A change in the law to allow it to investigate discrimination complaints by gays and lesbians shouldn't require any great infusion of time or energy. Unfortunately, however, it probably will.
A dissenting minority opinion, which also will be presented to the council, questions whether homosexuality is "normal" or a "behavioral disorder," then concludes that there isn't enough evidence to support the need for laws protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination.
Such broad assertions not only divert attention from the crucial questions but also raise homophobia to the level of public policy. Indeed, they are rooted in the irrational fear that protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination will encourage more people to become homosexuals. This is a little like arguing that protecting people with handicaps from discrimination will encourage others cut off an arm.
One does not have to sanction homosexuality to believe that all Americans have a right to live free of discrimination and harassment. Yet the National Institute of Justice reported in 1989 that homosexuals are the most frequent victims of hate crimes. The county commission itself has received many discrimination complaints, even though advocates of the new legislation note that because there is no protection for homosexuals in the county's anti-discrimination law, much reporting is deterred.
The minority report twists this into a Catch-22, arguing that evidence of discrimination against homosexuals is "anecdotal" and, that the complaints lodged by gays and lesbians merely "proved that some people in our society do not like persons who live the homosexual lifestyle." This statement, ironically, points out precisely why homosexuals need legal protection.
County law now provides recourse for people discriminated against on virtually all other grounds. The absence of similar protection for homosexuals in effect gives license to discriminate, and that license gives permission to hate. Baltimore County Council members should resist the impulse to pander to public fears and pass the amendment.