A few years ago after a night out in Portland, Kate Neal and her then-girlfriend hailed a cab to take them home. They should have been able to arrive at their destination, pay the fare, and continue on with their lives – but shortly into the ride, the cab driver noticed them holding hands, pulled the car over, shouted, “You can’t be gay in my cab” and demanded they get out of the car, on the side of a busy highway.
Suddenly, because of the driver’s choice to deny service to the couple due to their sexual orientation, a simple cab ride became an act of discrimination.
That was five years ago, in 2013, but now, in 2018, the importance of non-discrimination protections in places of public accommodation, including taxis, is clearer than ever. Right now, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case of a bakery that denied equal service to a same-sex couple, and if the bakery prevails, long-standing non-discrimination laws nationwide could be severely weakened.
What it comes down to, Kate said, is that businesses who claim to serve the public must serve everyone equally.
“If you are a business operating in the public sector – like a cab, like a bakery – you cannot refuse service to someone based on something like the color of their skin or a disability they may have or what their sexual orientation happens to be,” Kate said. “If you want to discriminate against someone in that way, you shouldn’t be operating a business in the public sector.”
“We have a history of pushing aside minority groups or separating them or taking rights away from them based on what are essentially religious beliefs. And we need to fix that and move on.”
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Kate Neal moved to Portland years ago in many ways because it was generally supposed to be more welcoming.
She grew up in Boise, Idaho, where she graduated from high school and then attended Boise State.
Coming out as lesbian wasn’t the easiest for her – in some ways, it was a sputtering process marked by awkward encounters that were never fully on her terms.
Early on in high school in the early 2000s, while working at a video rental store, Kate was confronted with the realities of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. While exploring her sexuality, she checked out several movies from the store, including some with LGBTQ themes, in hopes of relating to her romantic feelings for other women.
“My employer could see the records of what I was checking out,” Kate said. “And so just a few days after I started researching these types of films, I came into work and they fired me without giving me a reason.”
The discrimination left a clear impact: “I definitely felt pretty ashamed or shamed from that experience,” she said. “I’m from a family that grew up on a farm, so work ethic is something that has been deeply instilled in who I am. I knew that I was a great, dependable employee, and I did way more than most of the other employees, and yet I was fired without being given a reason.”
“We have a history of pushing aside minority groups or separating them or taking rights away from them based on what are essentially religious beliefs. And we need to fix that and move on.” – Kate Neal
“Because that experience coincided with this formative time of me trying to figure out if I was gay…to go through that exploration and then essentially be fired for this thing that you think you might be, it probably made my coming-out process take a lot longer than it should have. It put shame on top of the shame that society likes to put on minority groups.”
After graduating from Boise State, Kate moved to Portland with a friend and has lived there ever since, just over ten years. She owns a home, fronts a band called Dirty Looks, and works for a software company.
“I fell in love with Portland,” she said. “Part of why I live here is because of the politics and the protections that are here. This is the first place I’ve ever felt at home, where I wasn’t stared at, where I was accepted for being a masculine leaning woman.”
Oregon is one of 18 states with comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Kate’s home state of Idaho is one of 32 states without these full and essential protections.
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Kate’s love for Portland is part of what made it hard to accept the discrimination she faced from the cab company back in 2013.
But her experience in some ways has strengthened her resolve for building a world where people respect each other and are better equipped to handle uncomfortable encounters.
After filing a claim under Oregon’s non-discrimination laws, Kate tried to work with the cab company to implement diversity training and better underline diversity policies. She believes this is an important step toward preventing discrimination in the future.
“If we met everyone with more compassion and love instead of judgement or hate, this world would pretty quickly become a better place.” – Kate Neal
“Cab companies and other companies need to train their employees and educate them on diversity,” she said. “You can’t do what this driver did to us and not face the repercussions that he faced. If the cab company had educated their drivers and explained that they can have their beliefs, but if they’re operating a vehicle in the public sector, those beliefs can’t impact who they serve. If our driver had done that, we would have gotten where we needed to go safely, he would have continued on, gotten paid for it – with a tip – and he could have continued going on with his life and his beliefs.”
Kate understands that people make mistakes, and she knows that everyone is capable of growth, including the cab driver who discriminated against her, the cab company, and others with anti-LGBTQ views.
She thinks back to when her own family found out that she is gay. Their reaction wasn’t very positive – but eventually they grew to understand and support her.
“I think that, for the most part, people do the best they can with what they have,” she said. “What my family had at the time was fear and a lack of understanding, and so they were being reactive in that. If they could go through the experience now, I think they would be far more accepting and more concerned with what my experience was, rather than what their reaction was. I think they couldn’t have grown to this point if we didn’t go through what we went through. Now I’m really proud of my mom – she called me a while ago and said, ‘I was out for lunch with my colleagues, and I corrected someone who made a gay joke and told them they should be more careful about how their words impact other people.'”
“I think if we all took a step back from ourselves and our egos and the things that we believe in wholeheartedly and just consider that everyone is coming from a similar place in themselves,” Kate said, “if we met everyone with more compassion and love instead of judgement or hate, this world would pretty quickly become a better place.”