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Billboards seek to raise awareness of gay rights

One billboard was vandalized last week

A group advocating gay rights in Springfield has launched a public advocacy campaign in conjunction with national Gay Pride events.

Equality Springfield purchased five billboard advertisements across the city to promote gay and lesbian awareness during June’s Pride Month, including one featuring city commissioner Karen Duncan.

The group seeks fair treatment and equal opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens in Springfield.

“Visibility is a key concern for advocacy groups,” said President Rick Incorvati. “We were thinking of a way to be visible for a community that’s often not seen. Billboards seemed like a smart way to move forward.”

Two billboards on the Spring Street overpass were vandalized with graffiti last week, including one of the Equality Springfield billboards featuring Taiwo Jones and his mother, Harriet. The billboard states: “My child can be fired for being gay in Springfield. Help us change that.”

Jones said he believes the ad was purposefully tagged because of Equality Springfield’s message. “There’s definitely a problem here in Springfield that someone would go out of their way to do that,” said Jones, a Springfield resident.

Incorvati is unsure if the tagging was targeted at the LGBT community, but said the group is looking into the incident.

Members of Equality Springfield also attended last week’s city commission meeting to speak out about the lack of protection for the LGBT community in Springfield.

In February 2012, commissioners voted 3-2 against amending the city’s human rights codes to include sexual orientation. The topic was debated for months before large crowds at commission meetings.

Commissioners Dan Martin, Joyce Chilton and Kevin O’Neill voted against the issue, while Mayor Warren Copeland and Duncan voted in favor of the amendment.

A large group of residents opposed the amendment, including local churches and religious organizations. The opposition said proponents couldn’t produce specific cases of discrimination in Springfield.

At the commission meeting on June 10, Incorvati said O’Neill signed a letter of support for Rep. Ross McGregor’s statewide ordinance for LGBT protection in 2008, but five years later called the evidence of discrimination a matter of opinion.

O’Neill did not respond at last week’s meeting, but told the News-Sun he stands by his original opinion that Springfield does not have an issue with discrimination against LGBT people regarding employment and housing.

“There may be isolated cases, but (Equality Springfield’s) lawyer stated there are other avenues to be used to pursue violators,” O’Neill said. “I have no problem with LGBT people in Springfield putting the issue on the ballot.”

O’Neill said he still supports a statewide initiative.The billboard featuring Duncan, also located on Spring Street, says: “You can be fired for being gay in Springfield. Help us change that.”

“It’s a cause I believe in,” Duncan said. “I don’t think Springfield is a place that should discriminate against people for any reason. I wish we could add the language into our non-discrimination ordinance.”

Incorvati called her “heroic.”

“She offers a vision of Springfield moving forward,” Duncan said. “We’re pleased as can be to have the support of a legislator like Karen.”

The first pride parade was held in 1970 in New York City. Equality Springfield is trying to be true to that spirit of visibility, Incorvati said.

“There are people who don’t want gay people to be visible,” Incorvati said. “We have to assume that’s why we don’t protect people in the workplace. That’s a way of keeping them quiet, a way of intimidating them. It’s unfortunate the degree to which our churches in Springfield have put their weight behind that sort of oppression.”

The group began its annual film series on Thursday. They’ll hold viewings for other films in both August and October, Incorvati said.

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