By Jack King
Curry County Commission Chairman Tim Ashley is backing a petition drive against a state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
A bill prohibiting the discrimination, Senate Bill 28, was passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Bill Richardson this year. A statewide petition drive to keep the law from going into effect and have it placed on a referendum for voter approval in November 2004 was started by Las Cruces resident Pam Wolfe earlier this year.
In Curry County, the petition drive is being coordinated by Clovis business owners Mary Southard and Brett Johnson.
Ashley sponsored a proclamation calling for a public referendum on the law in a county commissioners court meeting Tuesday.
He said he learned about the petition drive from his parents, who heard about it from an interview of Chavez County Commissioner Sue Gutierrez on God’s Learning Channel, Channel 18.
Ashley said, since learning of it, he has read Senate Bill 28. He called it “poor legislation” and “extremely vague,” he said.
“What bothers me is that this bill would allow a man dressed as a woman to come into a classroom as a teacher,” he said.
“If I see a cross dresser, I worry about my children, because they don’t have their value systems totally developed yet. I wouldn’t want them exposed to that. Worse than being exposed to it, I wouldn’t want them told this is acceptable behavior,” he said.
“I’m concerned you’d have to make a lot of concessions for a ‘new gender’ of people. Are we going to have to have a new pod in the detention center for cross dressers and transsexuals?” he asked
Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher said definitions in the bill are vulnerable to being expanded in ways that could make the state or county subject to litigation.
“What’ll happen is once the bill is in effect they’ll go to the American Psychiatric Association and get all their definitions of “sexual orientation” and want to include them. That’s how it could expand,” he said.
State Rep. Gail Beam, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill in the House, said claiming the bill would allow a man to wear women’s clothing into the classroom is “a smoke screen.”
“Nothing in the bill would prohibit employers from having a dress code,” she said.
The bill wouldn’t change the problem of housing a cross dresser in a detention center either, she said.
“That would be a problem now. How would this bill change that?” she said. “We’re talking about the safety of a prisoner.”
“What I think is happening is that some people are afraid of homosexuals and homosexual behavior and they are trying to prevent the law from going into effect,” Beam said. “People are entitled to their views. Regardless of whether we think homosexuality is immoral, (homosexuals) are people who live beside us and work beside us. Why shouldn’t they be entitled to the same protections as the rest of us?”
Johnson said that in order to keep the law from going into effect, signatures from 25 percent of the voters in three-fourths of New Mexico counties — 125,577 signatures — must be collected by Friday. Ashley said, so far, 30,000 signatures have been collected statewide.
Ashley said if signatures can be collected from 10 percent of the registered voters in the last statewide general election — approximately 50,000 voters — the bill will still go into effect, but it will be put on a referendum ballot in November 2004.
Those interested in signing or obtaining a petition can call 742-3339, he said.