CHARLOTTE, N.C. – LGBT activists across the country now have their first comprehensive tool to track and measure non-discrimination and other equality initiatives at the local level. Last week, the Human Rights Campaign released their first-ever Municipal Equality Index, tracking local anti-discrimination ordinances and other achievements in 137 cities and towns across the U.S.
Eleven of the 137 cities ranked by the organization received scores of 100, including New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco.
Forty-four cities in the South were ranked, though none there received a perfect 100. Austin, Texas, ranked the highest with 91 points, followed by Fort Worth, Texas, with 89, Baltimore, Md., with 88 and Atlanta with 82.
Charlotte received 39 points, with Raleigh netting 43 and Durham 37. Columbia received a score of 40.
The scores of Carolinas’ cities included in the report are on par with the average 44.77 score for all southern cities. (See our sidebar at end of story for the scores of all southern cities.)
A benchmarking tool
Advocates in the Carolinas say the new index represents an important benchmarking tool for marking progress on the local levels.
“I tink it is a great tool, a starting point to see where the pockets of equality exist across the country in different cities and towns and states,” said Scott Bishop, a member of the HRC Board of Governors who also serves as chair of the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee, or MeckPAC.
“This tool is exactly what states like South Carolina have been looking for,” responded Ryan Wilson, the newly-tapped executive director of South Carolina Equality. “It puts on the map the kinds of advances that hav ebeen happening. Local work isn’t just legislative, sometimes it also includes the municipal stuff.”
Wilson said a statewide look at South Carolina often paints the state as one lacking any protection for LGBT people. “When you dive into the municipalities,” he said, “you see there is great work happening at the local level.”
HRC said it researched small and large cities in each of the 50 states, including each of the 50 state capitals, the nation’s 50 most populous cities and 75 large, mid-size and small cities and towns with the highest proportion of same-sex couples.
Lead researcher and report author Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy, said the index represents months of study.
“The research started in May and the research deadline was mid-to-late September,” Oakley said. “Anything that happened after that is not reflected, good or bad, in any of the scores.”
The rankings for each city include a variety of criteria, including non-discrimination policies for employees, non-discrimination laws, domestic partner benefits and other legal and policy matters.
The national group’s report, also supported by the Equality Federation Institute and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, also awarded bonus points for achievements like openly LGBT elected or appointed officials. The bonus points, said HRC, were a fair way to enhance scores for cities that have made progress outside of traditional legal means, especially if cities are in states with hostile legal climates or sometimes lack the legal authority to make changes on their own.
HRC also said the scores were not meant to reflect quality of life, but rather only the current legal and policy environment on LGBT equality issues.
“We also gave every city an opportunity to respond to the scorecard if there was anything they believe needed to be different,” said Oakley.
Charlotte was not one of the cities which decided to respond to the document. Oakley said city’s scorecard was sent to Mayor Anthony Foxx’s office.
Oakley said updates can still be made to the document, though the group hasn’t yet made the decision whether updated scores will be immediately available in the index’s accompanying online database or if updates will be saved for next year’s publication.
Activists in some cities have already noted slight discrepancies.
Charlotte was awarded four points for possessing an ordinance requiring private businesses contracting with the city to offer equal health and other benefits to same-sex couples. Though that ordinance doesn’t exist, Charlotte’s lost four points could be replaced by an additional 14 points not initially assessed for the city, including domestic partner health benefits, legal dependant benefits and equivalent family leave. If updated, Charlotte’s score could jump from 39 to 49.
Raleigh was given five points for having a mayoral LGBT liaison or office. That position doesn’t exist, though the Raleigh Police Department does have an LGBT liaison and the city appointed an openly gay man to its human relations commission. If updated, Raleigh’s score could jump from 43 to at least 47.
Activists in Columbia also noted some concerns, including missing points for LGBT-inclusive public accommodations and housing ordinances in Richland County and the inclusion of gender identity in similar city ordinances. An update could push Columbia’s score to up to 46. If the county ordinances are included, Columbia’s score could reach 58, ranking it higher than the three North Carolina cities assessed by HRC.
Despite initial discrepancies, Bishop and Wilson say they are confident scores will be updated. Oakley said HRC is open to working with local activists to update the scores. Documentation can be submitted online and questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. HRC also said the index “articulates a path forward and celebrates the cities doing this important work.”
Advocates say it provides goals for continued local advocacy.
“It gives a blueprint to sit down with city councils, with police chiefs, with school boards,” said Wilson. “We can say these are the kinds of things our city is being graded on compared to other cities in the country.”
Bishop said he’s already used the index in his meetings with local leaders. “It just generally sheds some light on where we stand,” he said.
“If that means scores jump by 20 points [by next year’s release of the index], that shows just how much is being done,” Wilson said.
Wilson also foresees potential for the index to be used by cities and towns not yet listed on the index. Leaders in such towns will now be asking, “When they come to look at us, where will we be? We should get our house in order,” said Wilson.
Bishop and his local group are looking forward to continued conversations with leaders in Charlotte and other municipalities in Mecklenburg County.
“We’re going to continue to look with the city to add gender identity to its non-discrimination policy and use the Municipal Equality Index to see where we can make headway with the city,” Bishop said. “The score itself did not take a look at Mecklenburg County, so we will work with HRC to get an equivalent Municipal Equality Index on Mecklenburg County and use that to further equality in the county.”
Bishop said an initial review of equality initiatives in other Mecklenburg County cities and towns show potential for future campaigns and conversations. In addition to Charlotte, Mecklenburg County has six other city and town governments. Only one, Mint Hill, apparently includes sexual orientation in its human resources’ equal employment opportunity statement, though it does not also include gender identity.
The index and the potential for future progress, Bishop said, provides a path forward while recognizing past achievements.
“It shows that we’re not behind, that we’re keeping on par with most other cities,” he said. “I think that is good. I’d certainly want to see our score be better, but there is a lot of opportunity for improvement on things we can do as city.”
State laws will prevent any city or town in North Carolina from enacting some advances, such as housing and public accomodations ordinances already adopted by some South Carolina cities.
“We’ll be limited in some respects on how high we can get based on the policies of the state, but there is room for improvement and some action we can take,” Bishop said.
Bishop said he envisions partnering with other progressive allies as well as Equality North Carolina, the statewide LGBT advocacy and education group. At their conference in Greensboro last month, Equality NC’s executive director, Stuart Campbell, said the group would begin to focus on local advocacy efforts. The intended move by the statewide group mirrors local strategies used by SC Equality and other southern LGBT groups faced with unfriendly state legislatures.
info: You can read the full Municipal Equality Index report, accompanying documentation and search an online database at hrc.org/mei.
Southern cites’ scores
Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham and Columbia were among 44 southern cities ranked. Scores from these cities in the South (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau) below:
Austin, Texas 91
Fort Worth, Texas 89
Baltimore, Md. 88
Atlanta, Ga. 82
Orlanda, Fla. 77
Dallas, Texas 76
Arlington, Va. 74
Miami, Fla. 72
Alexandria, Va. 68
Annapolis, Md. 66
Tampa, Fla. 66
Charleston, W.Va. 62
Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. 62
Wilton Manors, Fla. 62
Oakland Park, Fla. 54
Rehoboth Beach, Del. 53
Houston, Texas 52
Nashville, Tenn. 50
El Paso, Texas 49
San Antonio, Texas 48
St. Petersburg, Fla. 46
Tallahassee, Fla. 46
RALEIGH, N.C. 43
Dover, Del. 41
Tulsa, Okla. 41
COLUMBIA, S.C. 40
Louisville, Ken. 40
CHARLOTTE, N.C. 39
DURHAM, N.C. 37
Hollywood, Fla. 36
Miami Shores, Fla. 34
Decatur, Ga. 27
Oklahoma City, Okla. 26
Memphis, Tenn. 22
Little Rock, Ark. 17
Virginia Beach, Va. 17
Arlington, Texas 16
Jacksonville, Fla. 15
North Druid Hills, Ga. 15
Richmond, Va. 15
Avondale Estates, Ga. 8
Jackson, Miss. 8
Frankfort, Ken. 0
Montgomery, Ala. 0