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In 2015, record number of US cities offered LGBT rights, report says

The Human Rights Campaign's 2015 Municipal Equality Index reveals where the LGBT rights movement gained momentum in the US in the past year.

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    Marci Burba waves a rainbow flag at the Sacramento LGBT Community Center in Sacramento, Calif., on June 26. The US LGBT community saw plenty of progress against discrimination in cities nationwide, even as the fight for equal rights continues, a new Human Rights Campaign report suggests.
    Randall Benton/The Sacramento Bee via AP/File
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A record number of American cities offered their LGBT residents legal protections against discrimination in 2015, a new report finds.

The Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) 2015 Municipal Equality Index found that 32 million people now live in cities with explicit and comprehensive equal-rights policies. And though 31 states do not have nondiscrimination protections in housing and employment for LGBT people, the study reinforces an upward trend over the past three years in the number of US cities with such laws.

The findings, some say, reflect both the momentum and the pushback that the LGBT rights movement has faced since the US Supreme Court in June ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide.

“The momentous decision at the Supreme Court both spurred new energy as well as backlash, and we’re seeing that across the country,” says Janson Wu, executive director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), a legal nonprofit in Boston. “I think our community and allies understand the unfinished work on nondiscrimination, and our opponents are seeing that as a threat.

“So while we’ve had terrific victories, we’ve [also] had some devastating defeats.”

The index – which rated on a 100-point scale more than 400 municipalities from every state – examined the strength of a city’s nondiscrimination laws, as well as its efforts to employ LGBT people, provide them with critical services and programs, and build relationships with their community.

Among its key findings:

  • 47 cities, including Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta, earned perfect scores, indicative of “exemplary LGBT policies,” according to the report. The figure is up from 11 in 2012.
  • 66 of those rated this year offer city employees transgender-inclusive health-care options, compared with 42 cities in 2014.
  • Even in states that aren't big on LGBT-friendly policies, some cities show strides in nondiscrimination laws and relationship-building with the LGBT community – as in the cases of Louisville, Ky., and Bloomington, Ind.

“The progress for LGBT equality has been incredible, really,” writes Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel for the HRC, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “Ten years ago we were facing referenda across the country amending state constitutions to deny same-sex couples the ability to marry. This year we had the Obergefell decision which extended marriage equality to every state in the country.”

“It is hard to overstate how far the movement for equality has come in such a short period of time,” she continues.

Employment issues, transgender rights

But issues remain. Ms. Oakley writes, “Too many states don't have the necessary state laws to protect ... people from being fired because they've married someone of the same sex.”

Even in states that do have such laws, conflicts abound, adds Mr. Wu at GLAD. He points to the case against Fontbonne Academy, an all-girls Catholic prep school in Milton, Mass., which in 2013 rescinded a job offer it made to Matthew Barrett after he listed his husband as his emergency contact.

Mr. Barrett sued the school for discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. Fontbonne argued that Barrett’s relationship is at odds with its religious mission, so hiring him would infringe on its constitutional rights.

On Thursday, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge ruled in Barrett’s favor, saying a director of food services would not be involved with presenting students with the teachings of the Catholic Church and could not be lawfully terminated under religious freedom exemptions. Still, Wu says, the case exemplifies the kinds of situations that LGBT people continue to navigate, even in states with LGBT-friendly policies.

Another issue that advocates say needs more focus: transgender rights. While anti-LGBT violence has declined in recent years, transgender women and people of color continue to bear the brunt of hate crimes, according to a report released in June by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

“We have to address the tide of violence that is being perpetrated on transgender people, particularly transgender women of color,” Oakley writes.

Trans protections in public accommodations also took center stage this year, when a measure that would have offered broad protections to gay and transgender people failed by a wide margin in a referendum in Houston in November. Opponents had homed in on the measure’s public bathroom clause, which they said would allow “sexual predators to use women’s restrooms.”

“The voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality – that is already the law,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement at the time. “It was about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms – defying common sense and common decency.”

The strategy, Wu says, is a throwback to antigay tactics from the 1970s and '80s, when gay men were portrayed as pedophiles.

“The opposition is using that same strategy with regards to people’s fears about trans people ... stereotypes about being sexual predators, dangerous in public spaces, disordered, having mental illness,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Toward meaningful progress

Some say the key is to promote empathy and compassion between conflicting sides.

“Ultimately, for almost everyone, politics is driven by an emotional reaction to something,” said Erik Fogg, founder of Something to Consider, a Massachusetts-based organization that aims to promote productive dialogue on divisive issues, to the Monitor last month. “If you can’t empathize [with someone],” he added, “you can’t care.”

The problem with discrimination, says Wu, is that it doesn’t happen to everybody – which makes it difficult for those on one side of the dispute to empathize with those on the other.

“People marry, everyone’s been to a wedding,” he says, referring to polls showing that a majority of Americans supported same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court's decision. “Not everyone has seen or felt the harm of discrimination. One challenge going forward for our movement is to demonstrate to the public that discrimination happens and it hurts people.”

Laws and leadership can play a critical role in transforming discourse, Wu says. In its report, the HRC highlights steps that cities have taken to pass inclusive nondiscrimination legislation – such as a new policy that covers transgender-related health care for municipal employees in Jersey City, N.J.; domestic partner benefits in Louisville, Ky.; and, in Boston and other Massachusetts cities, fully inclusive laws that include prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations.

Such cities serve as models for progress for other places, she says.

“Our government sends a powerful message when it says, through the laws, that discrimination against gay and trans people is wrong,” Wu says. “Government can be a role model in that way. It can change climate and culture.”

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