EDITORIAL: How Queer is Virginia?

By, Arielle Branson

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Because sexual identity is not a constitutionally protected class, there are wide disparities in the treatment of LGBTQ people based largely upon geographical location. This is why the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) does an annual assessment of LGBTQ equality in 506 cities across the nation. This is crucial because this year’s assessment reported that only, “20 states have non-discrimination laws that include protections for LGBTQ people in employment, and 19 states have laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in places of public accommodation.” The study, called the Municipal Equality Index (MEI), is the only nationwide ranking system of equality in law and policy. This year’s report included 11 cities in Virginia.

The average score nationwide was 55 points out of 100; the average score in Virginia was 46 points. 22 cities this year were awarded a perfect score. Richmond was awarded 46 points, the average for the state. The highest scoring Virginia city was Arlington, with a score of 87, and the lowest was Chesapeake, with a score of 18. This is partially due to the fact that Virginia law does not address discrimination based upon sexual orientation or sexual identity in the private sector. This leaves protections of this kind up to individual cities. Arlington and Alexandria (the two highest ranking Virginia cities) have independent protections that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation but not gender identity.

Since 2012, when the MEI first debuted, the number of cities earning perfect scores has quintupled and cities that have been reviewed all five years have improved by 20 points on average. HRC President Chad Griffin stated, “This year, dozens of cities across the nation showed they are willing to stand up for LGBTQ people in their communities even when some state governments are not.” Griffin continued:

This builds on a trend we have long observed: that local governments are at the forefront of our fight for equality. Unfortunately, our opponents have witnessed this progress too, and in recent years, anti-LGBTQ lawmakers have pushed spiteful legislation aimed at pre-empting local protections. That’s why it’s so important that we continue to not only fight for equality at the state and local levels, but to enact comprehensive federal protections for LGBTQ people under the Equality Act.

This progress at the local level is exemplified by the improvements made for the transgender community. The findings show that transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits are offered to employees of 86 municipalities this year, which is up from 66 in 2015 and just 5 in 2012. With each passing year, the end goal of equality grows closer.

However, when it comes to Virginia, a great deal of improvement still needs to be made. Although we fall behind the national average, there has been significant improvement. “In its fifth year, the MEI continues to drive fairness and equality in Virginia's leading municipalities,” said James Parrish, Executive Director of Equality Virginia. “The MEI provides a useful benchmark for localities to create a Virginia that is a safe, welcoming, and equal place for gay and transgender individuals and their families to live, work, and play.”

As the HRC prepares for its sixth annual MEI, Virginia has a wonderful opportunity to show that its cities, and indeed the Commonwealth as a whole, is open and welcoming to everyone.