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Ecker to nominate gay rights advocate Nyquist, 2 other women would join rights panel


County Executive Charles I. Ecker will nominate a Columbia gay rights advocate and two other women to the Human Rights Commission Wednesday and send their names to the County Council for confirmation.

Jan Nyquist had not expected to be one of the nominees. When she saw Ecker at a sporting event in Columbia last week, she pulled him aside to urge him to appoint gay rights activist Robert Healy to the Human Rights Commission.

Ecker instead asked Nyquist if she would be willing to apply for appointment. After talking with Healy, Nyquist agreed.

"Having a representative of the gay community on the commission is more important than my personal aspirations," Healy told her, adding that he would support her nomination.

Council Democrats had asked Ecker privately to nominate Healy, but Ecker refused. Publicity surrounding Healy's application made Healy "too controversial," Ecker said. After rejecting Healy, Ecker said he was actively seeking homosexuals to serve on the Human Rights Commission but felt they should be people he nominates, not people the council nominates.

Ecker said he did not receive Healy's application until after a story announcing Healy's intention to try to win appointment to the commission appeared in a local paper Dec. 19. The story implied Ecker was not concerned with protecting the rights of gay people.

Healy said he had been thinking about applying to fill a vacancy on the commission for more than a year. He doubted the article had anything to do with Ecker's decision not to appoint him, ZTC Healy said, because he hand-delivered his application to the county office building the day before the article appeared. Further, when Ecker interviewed him as a prospective human rights commissioner, Ecker told him he was still under serious consideration, Healy said.

"I don't intend to fade away," Healy said. "I'll apply again when a vacancy occurs."

As for Nyquist, "We both share the same concerns. She'll do a good job," Healy said. "I'm glad Dr. Ecker finally recognized the need for gay representation on the commission."

A resident of Columbia since 1974, Nyquist says she has been "trying on a one-to-one basis to educate people that all people have rights and have to be protected -- but nothing on the level that Mr. Healy has."

Healy served as legislative chairman of two statewide civil rights organizations -- one focusing on homosexuals, the other more broadly based.

Nyquist said Ecker never asked during their conversations if she were gay. "It was assumed," she said. "It's not something I hide. I was wearing several buttons from the gay community. The word has been out . . . ever since I have been living a gay lifestyle."

Although residents "like to imagine the county as progressive, we still have a long way to go to educate people that hate is not an acceptable practice and will not be tolerated here," Nyquist said.

"We have a long way to go to have people feel more comfortable with sexual preferences and a more open lifestyle. I hope to help create an atmosphere where that can happen."

Council Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, said he does not know Nyquist but plans to meet with her soon. She "sounds like a good choice," he said, "and does represent a minority."

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, praised Nyquist's nomination, saying, "She brings a degree of humility, sensitivity and involvement in justice issues that will only enhance the work of the commission. I am pleased that Dr. Ecker has decided the issue -- that the Human Rights Commission will have at least one representative from all the protected classes." He said did not anticipate any trouble in getting the council to approve the appointment of Nyquist, Verna Lawes and Veronica Mariani to the commission.

Ecker would not single out Nyquist for comment. "I've nominated not one, but three good people [to fill vacancies on the commission]," he said. "The other two are just as important."

The council refused last month to consider confirmation of Lawes and Mariani until Ecker dealt with Healy. The council will hold a public hearing on the Lawes, Mariani and Nyquist $H nominations July 20.

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