FAIRMONT, W.Va. — The debate that raged across social media and spilled into Fairmont’s city council chambers last year is once again raging online.
The adoption of Ordinance 1751, which repeals and replaces the city’s Human Rights Commission with additional protected classes to include sexual orientation and gender identity, sparked a fight between the West Virginia Family Policy Council, Fairness West Virginia, and the citizens of Fairmont who support and oppose the ordinance.
Now that fight will be decided, finally, at the polls this Tuesday.
Last September, the City of Fairmont adopted this ordinance on first reading unanimously. Then the debate began — and outside groups like Fairness West Virginia and the WV Family Policy Council descended to find a fresh battleground in the “friendly city” of Fairmont. On second reading, the ordinance passed 7-2 despite a marathon city council meeting that brought out significant public comment.
D.D. Meighen, a retired clergymen who operates the town’s public access channel, is perhaps supporter number one of Ordinance 1751 — saying that a Human Rights Commission is essential for Fairmont to flourish and essential to making all people feel welcome.
“When it comes to God’s love, I just don’t think that that’s one that you can say, ‘Well, God doesn’t love this person because of who they are or what they are. Therefore, I’m right and you’re wrong,'” he told WAJR.
“I think the one thing is, we look beyond those things and see where we can work together,” Meighen added.
The situation is tenuous though — as both sides accuse the other of bringing in outside money and outside help to decide an incredibly personal, intimate battle inside the city limits of Fairmont. It’s a battle that many outside the city limits are paying close attention to as well, regardless of their ability to actually vote in the race.
“Many of these people, some of whom I know and are nice people and I like them, want to protect their own privilege and I think that’s where they are wrong,” Meighen said.
He further criticized supporters for hypocritical action when it comes to institutions in the area that already have adopted their own human rights guidelines.
“These same people who would sign a petition against a human rights ordinance sometimes work at these institutions,” he said. “They do business, they supply the university or supply Pierpont or the clinic with their goods and their services.”
It was a petition, in fact, that changed everything. Organizing under the premise that Fairmont City Council was attempting to adopt their own “bathroom bill” like the one that sparked debate across North Carolina last year, a group called Keep Fairmont Safe found enough eligible signators in enough time to activate an obscure measure in the city charter.
That measure forced Fairmont City Council to read Ordinance 1751 for a third time last December. Councilors supported it by a 7-2 measure, forcing the issue to go to the ballot box this November.
A representative from Keep Fairmont Safe, the group that has organized opposition to Ordinance 1751, said an online bullying campaign has limited their desire to speak to the media. But WAJR did exchange question and answer via e-mail with the group last week.
“Keep Fairmont Safe finds it distasteful that the proponents continue to use negative, bullying language against concerned citizens who are sacrificing their time and resources to ensure that all voters are informed on this issue,” the rep wrote.
Keep Fairmont Safe has outlined numerous concerns, which have been debated back and forth by supporters and opponents.
The group has said:
— The ordinance will allow men into showers, lockers, and restrooms of their choice regardless of gender designation, a claim supporters vehemently deny
— The ordinance allows “menacing people falsely using such access laws to do harm to the elderly, women, disabled, and children”
— Veterans are not a protected class in the ordinance
— The ordinance will be bad for the local economy because “governmental overreach deters businesses from coming or staying” in Fairmont
Meighen said the group has continued to change their narrative.
“If a gentleman went into a women’s restroom and exposed themselves, that’s against the law anyway,” he said. “They’re not protected under any sort of class.”
Fairmont City Manager Robin Gomez, a supporter of the ordinance’s passage, said the argument about not protecting veterans is not an intellectually honest argument. He cited the U.S. Veterans Administration as a federal department that already advocates for veterans to protect them from discrimination.
“My understanding is that most human rights commissions do not cover veterans,” he said. “Because they are generally covered under any other group listed in the commission and there are an assortment of national programs set up to advocate veterans who are discriminated against.”
He added: “Could we re-examine it later if we needed? Yes. But there is no federal department we know of that operates in the same way for those protected under our current human rights commission ordinance.”
Gomez also said that the fear-mongering over the commission’s potential power is wrong. The new ordinance strips the quasi-judicial nature of the previous commission, first established in 1978. He said this commission is designed to be educational and encourage inclusivity and diversity.
“Kind and respectful and loving and live in harmony together,” he said. “That’s really all there is.”
Rather, the debate comes down to what it actually means to be transgender. The American Psychiatric Association defines gender dysphoria as a “conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with wich he/she/they identify.”
And, statistically speaking, self-identified transgender citizens are often the victims of crime. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2017 was a record year for fatal violence against transgendered people, with advocates tracking at least 29 recorded deaths.
For Meighen, who has served in numerous different sects of Christianity, he has issues with those who can both identify as Christian and support Keep Fairmont Safe’s objectives.
“I think that freedom of religion is good, but when it is used to impose hurt, harm, and lack of dignity on behalf of other people, then it is wrong and misleading and irreligious,” he said. “And that’s why so many people have turned away from religion — it does not address the human needs and concerns of people at all.”