AIDS Fears Cited as L.B. Balks at Banning Job Bias

Times Staff Writer

Fears in the community of the AIDS virus stopped the City Council this week from adopting an ordinance that would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Instead, the council decided to study the issue further and adopted a policy statement against discrimination, which critics say has "no teeth" because it is unenforceable in court.

During a lengthy and heated meeting Tuesday, some council members agreed with representatives of the 1,500-member business group Downtown Long Beach Associates that "it is impossible" to separate the issue of acquired immune deficiency syndrome from homosexuals, the group that has been most affected by the virus in the United States.

'An Unfair Issue'

Others, however, ardently argued against linking the two issues.

"We're trying to mix two things. . . . I resented this (being) brought up today," said Councilman Tom Clark. "It's an unfair issue."

"This ordinance is not about AIDS. It's about employment," Councilman Wallace Edgerton argued, to the applause of some 100 people in the audience supporting the ordinance. "You don't catch AIDS hiring somebody who tests positive--let alone somebody who might be gay."

Leaders from the Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club--the predominantly gay political group seeking the new ordinance--expressed hope after the meeting that the city may yet adopt a revised version.

"We haven't lost yet," said Lambda President Rob Kramme.

Indeed, the council did not kill the ordinance altogether.

When it became apparent that only four out of nine council members supported the law, Councilman Evan Anderson Braude withdrew his motion for a vote. Then, with Vice Mayor Edd Tuttle dissenting, the council voted 8 to 1 to send the issue to its Quality of Life Committee, asking it to clarify what Councilwoman Jan Hall called a "gray area": whether business owners should be forced to hire someone with a potentially infectious disease and whether AIDS is such an illness. There was no indication when the committee would take up the issue or return it to the council.

How AIDS Is Transmitted

AIDS is contracted through the exchange of bodily fluids and most cases have occurred among homosexual or bisexual men, intravenous drug users and, to a lesser extent, people who have received blood transfusions from infected donors. Because of a tiny handful of reported cases of health-care workers with breaks in their skin contracting AIDS after having contaminated blood spilled on them, some fear the disease is easily transmitted. And as the disease spreads, it is no longer perceived as a problem solely within the homosexual community, but one that affects heterosexuals.

"I don't think we can split the issue of AIDS and discrimination in employment," Tuttle said, explaining why he opposed the anti-discrimination measure.

Bill Gurzi, chairman of the Downtown Long Beach Associates Political Action Committee, cited concerns from the dental and the food service professions that the ordinance could force the hiring of people with AIDS. Homosexuals and AIDS "are linked together," Gurzi said.

AIDS is no longer just a gay problem, it is spreading to the heterosexual community, countered Clark. To link the potential for getting AIDS with allowing job discrimination "would mean you couldn't hire anyone theoretically," Clark said.

'Cover for Homophobia'

Dave Newell, a member of the Lambda group, said after the meeting that "when people raise the AIDS issue, it's a cover for dealing with homophobia--or maybe it's ignorance."

During the meeting, Kramme told the council: "I suggest to you that to vote against this ordinance is to vote squarely on the side of bigotry, whether it be your own or fears from the bigots in your constituency."

Clark, Braude, Edgerton and Clarence Smith consistently spoke in favor of the ordinance.

Councilman Ray Grabinski, who, in interviews earlier this year, said he supported the concept of an anti-discrimination ordinance, said Tuesday, after hearing the opposition, that he would vote against it. Grabinski said after the meeting that there are "still a lot of questions" about whether the ordinance is needed.

Councilwoman Jan Hall said she did not "feel comfortable" with an ordinance that could potentially place "into jeopardy all our population."

Earlier in the meeting, Hall appeared to have voted for the ordinance when the council split 5 to 4 to send the proposed law to City Atty. John R. Calhoun to add the following paragraph: "No provision of this chapter shall be construed to prohibit, or subject any business establishment to any legal liability resulting from, the failure or refusal to hire, or the discharge of, any person where the person, because of a medical condition, including infectious or contagious disease, or because of a physical handicap, is unable to perform his or her duties or cannot perform those duties in a manner which would not endanger the individual's own health or safety or the health and safety of others."

Issue Not Clarified

But Hall later said the new language did not clarify the issue and she would not support the proposal.

Harwood and Tuttle both said the proposal would open the door to costly litigation.

Others in the audience complained that if the council approved the ordinance, it would be catering to a minority whose members "wear their sexual proclivity on their sleeves."

Opponents also argued that the ordinance could be costly to business owners slapped with lawsuits, and some suggested that the issue be put to a city vote. In response, Edgerton said potential costs should not stop the council from approving a civil rights issue, nor should the issue be placed to a vote: "If we demanded that every minority go out and get a majority vote, we wouldn't have any minority rights."

Clark, the only black on the council, said: "Discrimination hurts. It is a painful, painful thing to go through. . . . I have been in that situation and I know what it means. I would hate for us to leave here today without doing the right thing."

Throughout the four-hour morning hearing, most of the supporters who urged the council to adopt the ordinance were admitted gays and lesbians. Most testified they had been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. The Lambda members said they had backing from over 15 organizations, including the Greater Long Beach Labor Council and the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach.

Religious Objections

Business representatives were joined in opposing the ordinance by fundamentalist Christians who told the council that homosexuality is a sin and heterosexuals have a right to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

At one point in the meeting, after Long Beach resident Allen Taylor told the council: "The Salem witch trials were ugly. We wouldn't do that again," a street preacher known as Bobby Bible Eagle screamed out, "Wrong."

While Taylor spoke, Bible Eagle quickly scribbled on a piece of paper, which he handed Taylor. It read: "Witch burnings were great. They eliminated witches. . . . Repent. Read the Bible."

The ordinance the council reviewed Tuesday had undergone numerous changes since it was first proposed. The revisions were offered in an effort to win the votes of council opponents.

If Long Beach eventually adopts such an ordinance, it will join cities such as Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Laguna Beach, which have similar laws.

The council's decision Tuesday was a disappointment to the Lambda members, who said they have worked for three years on the proposal. Lambda representatives said they waited until now to bring it forward because they thought they had the majority's support after last year's election of Braude, Grabinski and Smith to the council.

"At least it wasn't killed," Newell said, adding Lambda is "willing to work with them."

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