Stalled in D.C., gay rights advance at the local level
At the U.S. Capitol and in most statehouses nationwide, supporters of LGBT rights are unable to make major gains these days. Instead, they’re notching victories in seemingly unlikely venues, such as Morgantown, West Virginia, and Birmingham, Alabama.
They are among scores of cities and towns in Republican-governed states that have acted on their own, passing resolutions and ordinances pledging nondiscrimination protections for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in the absence of comparable statewide laws.
De Pere, Wisconsin — a Green Bay suburb not noted for LGBT activism — took a big step last week toward joining the movement. After an intense public meeting, its city council gave preliminary approval on a 5-4 vote to a measure that would broaden the local nondiscrimination ordinance to cover transgender people. The measure would prohibit businesses, employers and landlords from discriminating against people due to their gender identify.
Alderman Casey Nelson, who introduced the measure, said he wasn’t sure if anti-transgender bias was a problem in De Pere, but he wanted to send a message that the city of about 25,000 was welcoming and tolerant.
“Can you imagine living in a community that refuses to accept you for who you are?” Nelson asked.
Advocacy groups say several hundred municipalities across the country have LGBT-inclusive antibias measures — many of them in the 31 states that lack fully inclusive statewide laws.
Skeptics say the local laws, in some cases, are mostly symbolic and not zealously enforced. Yet LGBT activists view them as a heartening barometer of nationwide support at a time when President Donald Trump’s administration has taken multiple steps that jeopardize LGBT rights — including weakening protections for transgender students and seeking to ban transgender people from military service.
Morgantown, home to West Virginia University, was among the most recent additions to the list of communities taking LGBT-friendly action. Its sevenmember city council voted unanimously on Oct. 17 to extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBT people.
Mayor Bill Kawecki says the action “simply verbalized the kind of community I really hope that we are.”
Earlier in the year, two big cities in South, GOP-led states — Jacksonville, Florida, and Birmingham — adopted similar ordinances. Birmingham became the first Alabama city to take the step; Jacksonville had been one of the most populous U.S. cities that lacked such a law.
In contrast, majority Republicans in Congress have shown no interest in considering a Democratic-backed bill called the Equality Act that would extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBT people nationwide. Companion bills in the House and Senate have a total of two GOP co-sponsors.
The congressional impasse leaves it up to individual states to set their own policies, but there has been little action recently. Since 2009, Utah is the only state where lawmakers have voted to join the minority of other states which extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBT people. And Utah went only part way — applying the protections to employment and housing but not public accommodations.
In states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, where the electorate is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, efforts to enact inclusive anti-bias laws have been rebuffed by the GOP-dominated legislatures.
The GOP-led legislatures in Arkansas and Tennessee have gone a step further — enacting laws barring municipalities from passing their own LGBT-inclusive ordinances.
Gloria Perino celebrates after after the Jacksonville City Council voted 12-6 to support the Human Rights Ordinance (HRO) in Jacksonville, Fla.