Omaha is in the minority among the largest cities in the country by not having anti-discrimination protections in place for homosexuals.
As City Councilman Ben Gray proposes a local ordinance to establish that protection, a look at how the issue has resonated across the country shows that Omaha would be joining the trend.
Among the 50 largest cities in the nation, Omaha is one of 15 whose gay residents have no specific legal protection from discrimination.
Although such gay rights measures have been criticized as radical, the growing list of cities putting legal protections in place indicates that the issue has become more mainstream nationally.
In the past two years, at least 35 cities and counties in the United States of all sizes have passed anti-discrimination ordinances based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national organization that promotes such measures.
In the country's largest cities, all but a handful have ordinances that take the extra step of covering transgendered people, as Gray is proposing.
Research shows that such laws have had a relatively modest impact.
Gray's measure is now before the Omaha City Council, which over the coming weeks will debate its necessity, its importance to Omaha's gay and transgender population and its impact on local businesses.
Proponents say it's time for Omaha to show that it welcomes gay and transgendered people.
"There is clearly a national trend that we would be participating in if we did this," said the Rev. Scott Jones, senior minister at First Central Congregational Church and a homosexual who supports Gray's ordinance. "We would not be doing something new or unique or different or on our own."
Gray's proposal, a version of which was turned down by the council in 2010, would outlaw discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, adding to an existing city code banning discrimination.
While providing a religious exemption, the ordinance would apply to Omaha's employers, employment agencies, job training programs, labor organizations, places of public accommodation and businesses that sign contracts with the city.
Gray said the growing support around the country for such anti-discrimination measures is "a clear indication that something is wrong and something needs to be fixed."
"I think the time has come for it," he said.
Twenty-one of the nation's 50 largest cities are covered by state bans on discriminating against gays, and 17 of those cities also have local ordinances. Another 14 cities have a local ordinance but no state law.
Most of the remaining 15 cities have tried to address the issue in some formal way:
>> Nashville passed a nondiscrimination ordinance last year, only to have the Tennessee Legislature ban such protections. A bill proposed in Nebraska by Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha also would ban such ordinances.
>> Raleigh, N.C., and Phoenix have anti-discrimination ordinances that deal with city contractors and gay city employees.
>> Virginia Beach, Va., Charlotte, N.C., Oklahoma City and Tulsa have city policies meant to protect city employees.
The debate over a full nondiscrimination ordinance is resurfacing in Wichita, Kan., and Houston, where gay rights groups are pushing for such protections.
Wichita approved an ordinance in 1977, but local voters overturned the ban. Houston, which has a lesbian mayor, has an ordinance covering city employees, but local activists want to expand that through a public charter vote.
Omaha has taken some smaller steps, too.
Without expressly mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity, the City Council approved a nonbinding resolution earlier this month supporting inclusive workplaces. Critics of Gray's proposal suggested it as an alternative to his ordinance.
In 2010, Mayor Jim Suttle issued an executive order expressing zero tolerance for discrimination against anyone. He included sexual orientation in that order, which city departments are expected to fulfill.
Councilwoman Jean Stothert, who questions the need for an ordinance, acknowledged the changes in other cities and said the local debate has been difficult. But Stothert, who co-sponsored the council's inclusive workplace resolution, said the council needs to decide what's right for Omaha.
"I really question if this ordinance is going to make any difference in what they perceive the problem is," she said.
Critics worry that Omaha's ordinance would let loose a flood of complaints and place a burden on employers.
But according to several research reports, that has not happened elsewhere:
>> This month, a report on contractor requirements from the Williams Institute, a University of California-Los Angeles research group that studies gay and transgender issues, concluded that government contractors offered little or no resistance to adopting new employment policies. "It's business as usual after a locality has decided to add these protections for LBGT people," one researcher wrote.
>> A 2002 federal report on state discrimination bans found "relatively few" complaints based on sexual orientation. Overall, less than 2 percent of all complaints were related to sexual orientation in the 12 states analyzed at the time.
>> A 2011 report from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission said that the state had 270 sexual orientation and gender identity complaints between 2007 and 2011. The proportion of sexual orientation and gender identity complaints to other complaints was in line with what the earlier federal study found.
Rhodes Perry, national policy director for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said the organization is excited that Omaha is considering an ordinance. He said it would be a "huge victory" for Nebraska to have its first ordinance in place.
Nationally, an estimated 44 percent of the population is covered by anti-discrimination laws that deal with both sexual orientation and gender identity.
Perry said his organization will keep working on the issue until a federal law is passed.
"We're slowly kind of chipping away."
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