Two years before Jolie Justus was elected the first openly gay state senator in Missouri, the General Assembly pushed an anti-gay marriage amendment to the ballot box, and voters approved it by 71%. This was in the forefront of her mind on her way to Jefferson City.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” says Justus, “they heard that I was this liberal lesbian, and that I was also smart, and that scared them.”
One of the first assignments for newly elected officials is a bus tour of the entire state to familiarize themselves with schools, hospitals, and prisons. As she was getting off the bus in Farmington MO, Justus recalls a fellow senator introducing himself as “the redneck homophobe who banned gay marriage”.
That was Senator Kevin Engler, the legislator who had carried the 2004 bill that allowed the anti-marriage amendment to be put on the ballot.
A year later, one of Engler’s staffers ran into Justus’ office, saying the senator needed her assistance with a gay man down the hall. Engler was having a meeting with a group of LGBT constituents. Justus, expecting the worst, was surprised to find Engler concerned about the lack of nondiscrimination legislation to protect LGBT Missourians from being fired based on sexual orientation.
“He said well that ain’t right, Jesus wouldn’t fire anyone for being gay,” Justus recalls, “at that minute I picked up a Republican co-sponsor for my legislation”.
The same legislator who opposed gay marriage became one of Justus’ strongest supports for her Missouri Nondiscrimination Act (MONA) which would ban the termination of LGBT individuals based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Together, this odd pair managed to collect the nine republican votes they needed to push the bill out of the Senate.
“When we looked at the map of the floor of folks who had voted with us,” says Justus, “most of the republicans who voted with me were the folks who sat around me on the floor”.
Despite getting voted out of the Senate in 2013, MONA has never passed into law. During his 2016 State of the State speech, Gov. Nixon called on the legislature to pass the bill.
“It’s unacceptable that Missourians can still be fired for being gay, that’s wrong. It’s not who we are and it must change,” said Nixon.
Sen. Joseph Keaveny is the primary sponsor of SB 653, the 2016 session’s attempt at passing MONA. Keaveny chairs the Senate Committee on Progress and Development which approved the bill earlier in February of 2016. But SB 653 hasn’t yet been added to the Senate floor’s debate calendar.
“The Missouri General Assembly is overwhelmingly conservative so it’s not one of their banner issues. They’d just as soon it go away,” says Keaveny.
Missouri is one of 28 states that do not include LGBT individuals in their nondiscrimination policies.
Justus left the legislature in 2014. In 2015, she was elected the first openly gay council member in Kansas City, MO. She says her time in Jefferson City working with fellow legislators taught her that it’s essential, for any interest group, to have representation.
“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
Photo courtesy of Missouri News Horizon: https://www.flickr.com/photos/monewshorizon/5328913874/in/photostream/