CLAYTON — Gay marriage and gays in the military may dominate the headlines, but activists in many states say their fight is much more fundamental: basic rights and protections against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation, even to overturn a ban on changing gender on a driver's license or birth certificate.
"In Missouri, you can still be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," A.J. Bockelman, executive director of PROMO, Missouri's statewide organization advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, said Thursday. "Sexual orientation is not a protected class in Missouri."
A spokeswoman for the Missouri Commission on Human Rights confirmed that is the case, saying past efforts to include sexual orientation as a protected class have failed.
Activists from state-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organizations throughout the U.S. are meeting here this week to share their efforts to make inroads in state legislatures, municipalities and school districts.
Toni Broaddus, executive director of their national alliance, the Equality Federation, said gay marriage has never been the movement's No. 1 priority. Rather, it's about the ability to work, get housing, adopt children, have families and have their partners recognized, she said.
"We just want the rights that everyone else has," she said. "This is about being equal citizens under the law."
At a get-acquainted session Thursday, dozens of activists provided updates on progress and setbacks in the states.
In Tennessee, transgender activist Marisa Richmond said advocates are working to pass a hate crimes law that would include lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgenders under its protection.
In recent weeks, she said, they won a commitment from Memphis-based Federal Express to add gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy.
Wisconsin passed new domestic partnership protections this summer that the Wisconsin Family Action recently challenged in the state Supreme Court, saying the new registry for same-sex couples violates the state constitution's ban on gay marriage and civil unions.
In Oklahoma, a group formed recently to fight what Oklahoma State University professor Laura Belmonte called "an intensely hostile environment" where only one small municipality has an anti-discrimination law.
"People ask me why I stay, but I say, 'It doesn't have to be this way,'" she said. "You can put your head in the oven and blow out the pilot light, or you can fight back."
Last year, gay and lesbian groups demanded Oklahoma state legislator Sally Kern apologize after she told a political group that "the homosexual agenda" poses a bigger threat to the United States than terrorism.
Kern said by phone Thursday that gays and lesbians want "approval for their behavior."
"What are we going to approve next, adultery?" she asked.
The Equality Federation's Broaddus said the top priorities for gay-rights activists at the state level are passage of new anti-discrimination laws or strengthening of existing ones; passage of anti-bullying laws that address sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, and recognition of their relationships, whether in marriage, civil unions or a domestic partnership registry.