ST. JOSEPH — St. Joseph city commissioners will be drafting an ordinance to provide legal protection against discrimination for LGBT residents, and if approved it would be the first such law in the region.

“Some people might not think this is urgent. It is an urgent matter,” said Commissioner Peggy Getty during a discussion on a non-discrimination ordinance Monday. “There are things going on in our community that most of us have no idea about.”

Getty and Commissioner Laura Goos first broached the idea, and Goos agreed that this is not the time to wait.

“We need to do this quickly,” an emotional Goos said.

Commissioners invited Mary Jo Schnell, director of The OutCenter in Benton Harbor, to talk about the effects of discrimination on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents, and the impact of passing anti-discrimination laws.

Such laws have been shown to promote public acceptance, moreso than educational efforts, Schnell said. There are 44 Michigan communities that have passed such ordinances.

If approved here, St. Joseph would be the first to take the step in the Berrien-Van Buren-Cass county areas, Schnell said. This is the first time she has been invited to speak to municipal leaders on this topic.

State legislators have not amended Michigan’s civil rights law to include LGBT protection, Schnell said.

“They can be fired for who they are,” and denied housing, Schnell said.

Having legal protection in St. Joseph would be “phenomenal,” and the impact would be seen right away, Schnell said.

Those who are LGBT and grow up in supportive communities become healthier, more productive adults, Schnell said. Youth who do not live in supportive environments are at high risk for becoming homeless, as they are kicked out or run away from their homes. They also are at higher risk for attempting suicide, depression and drug use.

LGBT adults who exist under a stigma because of their sexual identity have shorter life spans, on average 12 years shorter.

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights reports that LGBT discrimination in the workplace affects productivity and turnover for all employees, and makes it more difficult to recruit talented people.

While companies such as Whirlpool Corp. provide protection from discrimination for its LGBT employees, that doesn’t extend to their partners, it was pointed out.

It can even affect tourism. Dani Veenstra, pastor of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Watervliet, said she and her husband canceled a vacation to the Grand Cayman Islands because of discriminatory practices there.

Veenstra said she provides pastoral care to LGBT youth and tells them “God loves you exactly the way you are,” along with counseling to families.

Mayor Mike Garey choked up during his comments, saying that the community prides itself on providing the same support and protections to all residents and all taxpayers.

“It’s important to address this right away,” Garey said.

“This is one area where we can show leadership,” Commissioner Jeff Richards added. “I think it’s a step in the right direction, personally.”

St. Joseph can “set the bar high” for other communities to follow, Richards said.

A draft ordinance from the Department of Civil Rights reads: “No person or persons shall discriminate against any person or persons within the (City) regarding employment, housing, public accommodations, and public services on the basis of age, color, disability, education, familial status, gender expression, gender identity, height, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or weight.”

Goos said that the city attorney has been directed to draft proposed legislation that will be available at the city’s Oct. 22 meeting.

A report from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights is available at: www.michigan.gov/documents/mdcr/MDCR_Report_on_LGBT_Inclusion_409727_7.pdf

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak