For Idaho’s LGBTQ community, there is likely no bigger issue right now than “Add the Words,” a statewide grassroots effort to get the Idaho Legislature to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protections in the state’s Human Rights Act. Despite eight years of intense effort by LGBTQ advocates, the predominately Republican legislature has steadfastly refused to hold a public hearing on the bill.
The visibility of the movement climbed to new heights during the recently concluded legislative session when former Idaho Sen. Nicole LeFavour, the state’s first openly gay legislator, organized a group of individuals, acting under the similar name Add the 4 Words, to perform civil acts of disobedience at the Idaho State Capitol Building.
Their silent and peaceful protests resulted in LeFavour and many of her fellow demonstrators being arrested several times over the course of the session. Forty four people were cited in the first round of arrests in February for blocking the entrance to the State Senate chamber. Pride Foundation board member and longtime Idaho LGBTQ activist Emilie Jackson-Edney was among those arrested.
“Sometimes you know you’ve tried everything and you just have nothing left to lose trying a completely and utterly different approach,” LeFavour said. “We think we’ve made a lot of people across the state feel less alone. We think they’ve seen people like us care as much as we do for them and for their lives, and that’s good. For many, they finally saw people willing to put a lot on the line to speak for them.”
LeFavour’s efforts have also caught the attention of Idaho filmmakers Cammie Pavesic and Michael Gough, who, after seeing TV news footage of the first arrests, decided they needed to get involved to raise greater awareness of this issue.
“Add the Words – A Documentary Film” was soon born. Pride Foundation is a co-sponsor of the film, which when completed, will tour the state and national film festivals. The film includes several interviews with key leaders in the Add the Words movement, including LeFavour, and Add the Words spokesperson and Pride Foundation scholar Mistie Tolman.
“We want to tell the story of this epic battle of adding the words to the Idaho Human Rights Act and to tell individual stories so people in Idaho can see we are talking about regular people—that the LGBT community is not ‘them,’ but ‘us’,” Pavesic said. “Transformative art is my goal. Watching my fellow film partners change and grow has been just as important as watching the people involved in this movement. We are all better human beings because we’re making this film.”
For Tolman, Add the Words has grown into a huge LGBTQ movement that’s taken on a life of its own, serving as an umbrella group for countless organizations, activists, and everyday Idahoans.
“The Add the 4 Words group is a part of this movement, as are organizations like the ACLU, Pride Foundation, and Planned Parenthood,” Tolman said. “The arrest protest efforts have gotten the word out on a scale we’ve not seen before. We are all frustrated and out of patience. I’m not surprised that folks have taken other measures to get that point across. I’m just as thankful for those who’ve been arrested as I am for the dozens of people who have tirelessly worked on this for eight years. It takes us all.”
Despite the wider exposure this year and mounting pressure on lawmakers, the future of an Add the Words bill remains uncertain.
“It is difficult to know,” said Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of Idaho. “For some people, they achieved an increase of awareness nationwide for an issue in Idaho. For others, the protests served to solidify the issue as a radical one, alienating elected officials and other Idahoans. Of course, there are many others in between, but the bottom line is legislators went home without introducing a bill this session.”
Jess McCafferty, ACLU of Idaho’s LGBT equality fellow, added that she believes there were some missed opportunities this session to educate and answer questions from legislators about the discrimination of gay and transgender Idahoans.
“Symbolic protests need to be followed by active citizen lobbying,” McCafferty said. “Some legislators have never thought about what being gay or transgender is, so creating a safe space to talk and ask questions about the issues those people face while cultivating mutual respect is extremely important.”
“The silent protests certainly raised the profile of the issue to the national and sometimes international stage,” said Hannah Brass Greer, Idaho legislative director and public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest. “What the protests and the larger non-arrest actions by Add the Words and our coalition partners did was bring crowds of over 1,000 to the statehouse on more than one occasion. These efforts sent a clear message to the legislature and the press that the issue is not going away, and that we are not going away until the legislature passes a bill that protects gay and transgender Idahoans in employment, housing, education, and public places.”
“There is always collateral damage in every movement and campaign,” Tolman said. “Have there been difficulties as a result of the arrests? Of course. Some legislators liked to use the arrests as their ‘reasoning’ for not having conversations or not holding a hearing. We were at zero before the arrest protests, though, so how could we be further back than we already were? The spotlight has been huge, and of course it’s helpful.”
LeFavour agreed, adding that some Idaho lawmakers may think that by ending the legislative session and returning to their districts they could now avoid the issue.
“That will not happen,” LeFavour said. “For the first time when they go home, I don’t think they will be able to escape the question ‘Where do you stand on adding the words?’ Their silence can’t go on. They have to see this isn’t about politics, but about lives. I could not have lived with myself if I did not do everything in my power every minute of the day these past two months to try to get the state to finally stand up and say cruelty to gay and transgender people is wrong.”
When asked about the possibility of organizing a voter referendum effort to put Add the Words on a statewide ballot, many are cautious.
“Putting something like this, or anything for that matter, on the ballot is a whole different ball game,” Greer said, “so we would need to put considerable thought into it before we could make that decision.”
“While it may seem easy given the initial polling and support, referendum efforts cost amazing amounts of time, resources, and money,” Hopkins added, “and, if lost, could cost the movement years of achieving full inclusive protections.”
Still, LeFavour is open to the idea and thinks it is worth exploring with ally groups.
“We do have a ground sweep of energy and support and are better organized statewide than we have been in a long time,” LeFavour said. “Not since the No on One Campaign in 1994 have as many allies been engaged in LGBT equality and justice issues. That’s what it takes to create change. We cannot stand alone.”
Everyone agreed that Idaho voters need to keep the pressure on their legislators and let them know an Add the Words bill remains a priority.
“Attend town hall meetings and candidate forums and keep the issue on the forefront of people’s minds,” McCafferty said. “Talking directly to legislators and candidates when they are in their home district and having an open and honest conversation about why the bill is important is the single greatest action someone can do.”
Steve Martin is Pride Foundation’s regional development organizer in Idaho. Email Steve.