A nationwide evaluation of municipal law.
HRC Foundation, December 2021 | 40 Minute Read
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Municipal Equality Index, the nation’s premier benchmarking tool for municipal officials, policy makers and business leaders to understand how well cities across the nation are embodying LGBTQ+ inclusion in their laws, policies, and services.
Over the past 10 years, we’ve realized important progress for the LGBTQ+ community, including significant steps towards equality under the law as well as broader societal visibility and support. From Alaska to Georgia, from small towns to major urban centers, LGBTQ+ people are seeing broader horizons of freedom and opportunity in the places they live, work and visit. So much of this progress has been fueled by municipalities leading with equity, inclusion and respect. These city leaders understand that when LGBTQ+ residents and visitors are welcomed and embraced, this helps their entire municipality thrive.
But history teaches us -- and this past year reminds us -- that we cannot take any progress for granted. While elected leaders at the federal level have made equality a priority, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented assault on LGBTQ+ rights in state legislatures. Anti-equality state lawmakers have made attacking our trans and non-binary youth a priority. These attacks jeopardize the rights and welfare of vulnerable young people -- and they are putting lives directly at risk. By further fueling anti-trans stigma, craven lawmakers are exacerbating the epidemic of violence targeting our community that particularly impacts Black trans women.
At a time when our nation is grappling with the twin pandemics of racism and COVID-19, we need leaders to prioritize providing urgent assistance -- not pandering to the extremes of their base. Luckily, this year, we have seen municipalities across the country take the right course, and help chart a path forward for a better, brighter future for all the people that they serve. Their leadership could not be more important -- in defending and advancing LGBTQ+ progress, in setting an example for elected leaders at all levels, and inspiring all of us towards important change to come.
We are grateful to these pro-equality municipal leaders, and for the tremendous advocacy and leadership of our partners and the Equality Federation Institute and statewide LGBTQ+ organizations. Together, we will keep working to create a world where every person can thrive, no matter their zip code.
Joni Madison , Interim President , Human Rights Campaign Foundation
At Equality Federation, we know the importance of local protections for the LGBTQ+ community. As an advocacy accelerator dedicated to building power in our network of state-based LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, we are proud to partner with HRC on the Municipal Equality Index (MEI). This tool helps cities and advocates on the ground take stock of their progress and advocate for needed policies and protections, marking essential steps forward to achieve equality for LGBTQ+ people and our families.
Since 2012, the MEI has provided an annual snapshot of the local progress made for the LGBTQ+ community. This progress is what keeps us protected from harms such as housing discrimination, conversion therapy, and bullying in the communities we call home, often despite a lack of state or federal laws.
In reflecting on the MEI’s 10-year history, it feels as though these past few years have been the most challenging, and yet the most critical, to advancing LGBTQ+ equality. In 2021, we experienced a legislative session that focused on attacking transgender young people through proposed laws that would exclude them from participating in school activities such as sports and receiving life-saving medical care, all while living through an ongoing pandemic and fighting off direct attacks on our democracy. Yet, during this difficult year, I am heartened by the progress the LGBTQ+ state-based movement made to keep driving progress forward at the local level.
From Arizona to Kentucky to West Virginia, state groups helped secure local nondiscrimination ordinances, bringing the number of municipalities with fully comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people to over 350 nationwide. Since North Carolina’s statewide ban on nondiscrimination ordinances expired in December 2020, Equality North Carolina and its partners helped more than 15 jurisdictions pass local protections, covering more than 30% of the state’s population.
Even though we’re seeing an increase in state legislatures attacking LGBTQ+ young people, cities and towns of every size are doing what they can to protect the lives of LGBTQ+ youth. For the first time ever, cities in Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia banned the harmful practice of conversion therapy. The Fairness Campaign and its local partners in Kentucky helped pass a conversion therapy ban in Lexington-Fayette County, securing protections for 25% of the state’s population. Despite transgender athlete bans passing in nine states, local school districts across the country are protecting transgender students by passing policies respecting their names, pronouns, and use of the appropriate facilities.
As we look to 2022, we will continue to rise to the challenges we face in achieving nationwide policy victories. But we know the work of state and local advocates will continue to provide much-needed protections for LGBTQ+ people in the place it matters most: home.
Fran Hutchins , Executive Director , Equality Federation Institute
Inclusivity Drives Economic Growth
Cities are in constant competition for residents, visitors, employees, and businesses. A demonstrated commitment to equality through laws and policies that protect everyone, including LGBTQ+ people, sends a clear message that all residents, visitors, workers, and businesses are welcome and valued. Inclusive non-discrimination laws give cities a competitive edge.
A growing body of research shows that openness to diversity and inclusiveness is not a byproduct of communities that achieve economic prosperity, but rather a key element in the formula that leads to economic growth.
The Fortune 500 has long utilized inclusive workplace policies as proven recruitment and retention tools. Diversity and inclusion enhance an employer’s reputation, increase job satisfaction, and boost employee morale. Municipalities and their employees similarly benefit from LGBTQ+-inclusive workplace policies and practices.
What’s more, businesses actively take into account local laws and policies when making decisions about cities in which to headquarter, relocate, or expand. In fact, the nation’s top businesses are becoming increasingly vocal in their support for laws and policies that protect all of their employees and their families at home, in the workplace, and in their communities.
Until full nationwide equality is realized, cities must continue to lead the way on vital protections for LGBTQ+ residents, visitors, and workers. In doing so, city leaders will help ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all residents while encouraging real economic growth that benefits everyone.
Until full nationwide equality is realized, cities must continue to lead the way on vital protections for LGBTQ+ residents, visitors, and workers.
Cities Rated by the MEI
This edition of the Municipal Equality Index is the publication’s tenth, which means that this year there is even more to celebrate. 2021’s progress speaks for itself. One hundred and ten cities, an MEI record, scored 100 points and every region of the country experienced an increase in the regional average score. The national average also hit 67 points, also a report record. More cities than ever offer their employees transgender-inclusive health care benefits. And this is all despite a significant strengthening of standards for credit in several categories. Celebrating ten years of progress is one thing; having 2021 refuse to be eclipsed by an anniversary edition is quite another.
This is all particularly notable in the context that state legislatures across the country spent their efforts in another direction: more than 40 states introduced anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in 2021 and a historic number of those passed. Yet local leaders continued undeterred to do what local officials do best: listen to their constituents and move the needle of policy a little further towards progress.
Not all state action hurt LGBTQ+ people, though. Several states incorporated the legal reasoning of Bostock v. Clayton County, last year’s decision by the Supreme Court of the United States, into the enforcement of state laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. That means that in some states, despite not passing any new nondiscrimination legislation, enforceable protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity now exist. Cities in those states experienced a bump in scores for that reason.
In addition to important steps forward in nondiscrimination at the state and municipal levels, seventeen cities in states without nondiscrimination protections passed ordinances protecting youth from the damaging and discredited practice of conversion therapy. In one hundred and forty-one cities, all single-occupancy restrooms must be available to people regardless of gender - this is a huge win for transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people who have a safer place to use the restroom in places of public accommodation like theaters, restaurants, grocery stores and coffee shops. Cities continued to push their contractors to promise not to discriminate with taxpayer funds, and 181 cities invested in ensuring that transgender city employees, and transgender family members of city employees, are able to access the healthcare they need.
State and Regional Trends
35 state averages increased since the 2020 MEI. North Carolina, whose discriminatory HB 142 partially sunset last year, had a spate of cities pass non-discrimination ordinances as a result. While unfortunately the enforceability of these ordinances with respect to restrooms is questionable for any protected characteristic, these ordinances provide valuable protections in other areas. Cities in North Carolina continue to demonstrate that momentum for equality exists even in the toughest environments. Alaska and Texas cities experienced significant jumps as well due to implementation of Bostock under their respective state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex.
Every region of the country saw the regional average score increase this year. Municipal equality is marching forward in every part of the country! The highest average city score increase was in the Southwest, where cities in the region averaged about eight points higher than they did last year. Cities in the Southeast increased by an average of four points, and the rest of the regions bested last year by 2-3 points. Cities across the country are showing that progress toward equality is both possible and important.
2021 was another record-setting year for MEI cities. This year’s MEI revealed:
110 100-point cities, up from 94 last year.
More cities offering transgender-inclusive health care benefits to city employees than last year - a total of 181 - despite the standards for credit tightening this year.
74 “All-Star” Cities—cities that scored above 85 points despite being in states with no state-level explicit statutory non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people—compared to 61 last year.
43 municipalities have anti-conversion therapy ordinances in states with no state-level protections, up from 38 last year.
Only 8 zero-point scores.
The 2021 MEI is a celebration in more ways than one. It shattered records, including the number of perfect scores, and the highest average city score; it demonstrated growth in every region of the country; and it showed that regardless of what’s happening in state legislatures, local leaders understand the ongoing need to ensure that the people in their communities are safe, seen, and served.
Of the 94 cities that earned the top score...
Advancing LGBTQ+ inclusive municipal laws, policies and services is possible due to the steadfast commitment of city leaders across the country and our state group partners. Read their stories of what LGBTQ+ inclusion means for them.
The 2021 Municipal Equality Index rates 506 municipalities of varying sizes drawn from every state in the nation.
These include the 50 state capitals, the 200 largest cities in the United States, the five largest cities or municipalities in each state, the cities home to the state’s two largest public universities (including undergraduate and graduate enrollment), 75 cities and municipalities that have high proportions of same-sex couples and 98 cities selected by HRC and Equality Federation state groups members and supporters.
These 75 cities with the highest proportions of same-sex couples are drawn from an analysis of the 2010 Census results by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law
which ranked the 25 large cities (population exceeding 250,000), 25 mid-size cities (population between 100,000 and 250,000), and 25 small cities (population below 100,000) with the highest proportion of same-sex couples. To be consistent, we rated all twenty-five of these small cities, even though some of these small “cities” are in fact unincorporated census-designated places. In that case, we rated the laws and policies of the applicable incorporated local government (the entity actually rated, often the county, will be clearly indicated).
Significant overlap between these categories of cities brings the total number of cities rated in the 2021 MEI to 506, which has been the number of cities rated since 2016. In 2012, the MEI rated 137 cities; in 2013, 291; in 2014, 353; and in 2015 we rated 408 cities.
Why isn’t Washington, D.C. Rated?
Washington, D.C. is not rated by the MEI, even though it has a high proportion of same-sex couples and fits into several of the city selection criteria. Unlike the cities rated in the MEI, however, Washington D.C. is a federal district. This means that it has powers and limitations so significantly different from the municipalities the MEI rates that the comparison would be unfair— for example, no city rated by the MEI has the legal capacity to pass marriage equality, as Washington, D.C. did in 2009. While the District of Columbia is not a state, either, it is more properly compared to a state than it is to a city. For that reason, Washington, D.C. is included in HRC’s annual State Equality Index. More information on Washington, D.C.’s laws and policies can be viewed on the maps of state laws located at hrc.org/sei.
It should not be legal to deny someone the opportunity to work, rent a home, or be served in a place of public accommodation because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This category evaluates whether discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited within the city in areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. In each category, cities receive five points for prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and five points for prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity. There will be a three point deduction for non-discrimination protections in public accommodations that contain carve-outs prohibiting individuals from using facilities consistent with their gender identity. Additionally, up to six points will be deducted for religious exemptions that single out sexual orientation and/or gender identity. All non-discrimination laws ought to be fully inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Sexual orientation-only protections are not sufficient to protect the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination.
PART I POINTS CAN COME FROM STATE LAW, COUNTY LAW, OR CITY LAW.
If the state or county has a comprehensive and inclusive non-discrimination law that applies within the city limits, a city may conclude it is an inefficient use of resources to pass a local non-discrimination ordinance. For that reason, so long as the protection of a state or county law applies throughout city limits, the city effectively has such protections, and the state or county law will earn the city points in Part I. If there is no state or county law, but the city has passed an ordinance of its own volition, the city will receive credit for those non-discrimination protections. However, where laws exist at both the city and the state (or county) level, the city will not receive double (or triple) points— the maximum points in this section are capped at 30.
ALL-GENDER SINGLE-OCCUPANCY FACILITIES
Transgender individuals face disproportionately high levels of prejudice and discrimination in everyday life. These members of our community deserve the same dignity and respect as everyone else, in every area of life. This includes being afforded the dignity of equal access to public facilities in accordance with the gender they live every day.
Making single-user facilities open to everyone regardless of gender makes sense on every level. Not only does it provide a safe space for transgender residents, but it also benefits everyone by reducing line wait times. Cities that require all single-user sex-segregated facilities within the city like bathrooms and changing rooms to be all-gender will receive two flex points. Cities that designate all single-occupancy facilities within their own buildings as all-gender will receive half credit (one flex point).
PROTECTING YOUTH FROM CONVERSION THERAPY
So-called “conversion therapy,” sometimes called “sexual orientation change efforts” or “reparative therapy,” encompasses a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These practices are based on the false premise that being LGBTQ+ is a mental illness that needs to be cured—a theory that has been rejected by every major medical and mental health organization.
There is no credible evidence that conversion therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. On the contrary, research has clearly shown that these practices pose devastating health risks for LGBTQ+ young people such as depression, decreased self-esteem, substance abuse, homelessness, and even suicidal behavior. The harmful practice is condemned by every major medical and mental health organization, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and American Medical Association.
Cities that enact laws to protect youth from conversion therapy will garner two flex points.
Almost every municipality has immediate control over its employment policies. Respect for LGBTQ+ employees is clearly demonstrated by the inclusiveness of these employment policies.
CITY PROHIBITS DISCRIMINATION IN CITY EMPLOYMENT
Cities can adopt internal hiring policies that prohibit employment discrimination (including hiring, promotions, termination, and compensation) on the basis of sexual orientation (7 points) and gender identity or expression (7 points). It is a fundamental principle of fairness that an employee should be judged on their ability to perform the responsibilities of a position, and not by who they are or whom they love. A state-level non-discrimination law or a local non-discrimination ordinance alone is not sufficient to earn these points—personnel policies must enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity in order for the city to receive credit.
TRANSGENDER-INCLUSIVE HEALTHCARE BENEFITS
Cities, like other employers, provide health benefits to their employees, but some employees routinely have critical and medically necessary treatment excluded from the health care options they are offered. Transgender employees are routinely denied health care coverage for gender-affirming care such as hormone therapy, gender-affirming surgery, and other medically necessary care.
Credit is awarded when municipalities offer at least one municipal employee health insurance plan that expressly covers transgender healthcare needs, including gender-affirming surgical procedures, hormone therapy, mental health care, and all related medical visits and laboratory services. The lack of express exclusions for these services is not sufficient for credit because this care is routinely not covered. The plan should also ensure coverage of routine, chronic, or urgent non-transition services and eliminate other barriers to coverage including, but not limited to, separate dollar maximums and exclusions for covered dependents. Moreover, all out-of-network gender-affirming care for which in-network care is unavailable should be covered on the same terms as out-of-network coverage for other types of necessary care.
CITY REQUIRES ITS CONTRACTORS TO HAVE INCLUSIVE NON-DISCRIMINATION POLICIES
Cities that take fair workplaces seriously also require city contractors to have inclusive non-discrimination policies. An equal opportunity ordinance, as these are sometimes known, requires city contractors to adopt non-discrimination policies that prohibit adverse employment actions on the basis of sexual orientation (3 points) and gender identity or expression (3 points).
Partial credit is awarded to cities that do not have an official policy or ordinance to this effect but maintain a practice of including a qualifying city contractor non-discrimination clause in all city contracts.
MUNICIPALITY IS AN INCLUSIVE WORKPLACE
This section measures whether the city is a welcoming workplace for LGBTQ+ employees as measured by the following: the city actively recruits LGBTQ+ employees, or conducts LGBTQ+-inclusive diversity training, or it has an LGBTQ+ employee affinity group (a total of 2 points are awarded if any of these exist).
Cities will receive credit for offering equal benefits to both same- and different-sex domestic partners of city employees and their legal dependents. Even after nationwide marriage equality, it is important to respect the diverse family forms that exist by expanding domestic partner benefits to include all families.
Census data shows that LGBTQ+ people live in virtually every city in the country, but not every city recognizes that their LGBTQ+ constituents can have different needs. This section assesses the efforts of the city to include LGBTQ+ constituents in city services and programs.
Human Rights Commissions do important work to identify and eliminate discrimination; even in jurisdictions where LGBTQ+ equality isn’t explicitly a part of the commission’s charter, these commissions investigate complaints, educate the city, and sometimes enforce non-discrimination laws. Human Rights Commissions serve as important bridges between constituents and their city.
A Human Rights Commission will be worth five standard points if its purpose is largely or entirely educational. These commissions may hold community discussions, screen movies, present panels, take public comment, advise the city on matters of diversity and inclusion, develop policies and strategies for making the city more inclusive, and undertake other similar types of endeavors. Where, in addition to the functions listed above, a Human Rights Commission has the authority to conciliate, issue a right to sue letter, or otherwise enforce non-discrimination protections, that commission will earn two flex points in addition to the five standard points awarded above.
Similarly, an LGBTQ+ liaison to the Mayor or City Manager’s office (5 points) is responsible for looking at city policies and services through an LGBTQ+ lens and speaking up when a policy or service might exclude LGBTQ+ people. This position is also known to be a friendly ear to constituents who want to bring LGBTQ+-related issues to the city government but are fearful they might be dismissed or misunderstood.
Cities that expressly prohibit bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all youth-facing city programs, activities, services, facilities, and funding will earn up to two flex points (1 flex point for sexual orientation/1 flex point for gender identity). These policies should cover, for example, the city’s parks and recreation department, library programs, and any other department or service that incorporate young people.
The MEI also evaluates city services that address segments of the LGBTQ+ population who are particularly vulnerable and may have specific and acute needs. While all people age, battle illness, struggle to fit in, and work hard to improve their lot in life, these struggles can be different and particularly difficult for LGBTQ+ people. Cities can address these challenges by offering services—or supporting a third party provider of these services—to LGBTQ+ youth, LGBTQ+ elders, LGBTQ+ homeless people, people who are HIV-positive or living with AIDS and the transgender community (2 flex points for each service the city provides).
The relationship between law enforcement and the LGBTQ+ community, particularly LGBTQ+ people of color, is often rightly fraught with suspicion, misunderstanding, and fear.
LGBTQ+ people are vulnerable to violence arising from bigotry and ignorance. Law enforcement can help ensure safety for all by treating LGBTQ+ people with understanding and respect, remaining mindful of the LGBTQ+ community’s unique law enforcement concerns and engaging the community in a positive way.
An LGBTQ+ police liaison (10 points) can serve as an important bridge between the community and law enforcement. The liaison is an advocate for fair and respectful enforcement of the law as well as an officer that the community can rely upon to appropriately respond to sensitive issues. In instances of violence against LGBTQ+ people, LGBTQ+ police liaisons can help ensure that bias-motivated crimes are properly investigated and reported, victims are not misgendered, and the community is kept abreast of the investigation’s progress.
Respectful and fair enforcement includes responsible reporting of hate crimes, including for hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity, to the FBI (12 points). Such reporting demonstrates law enforcement’s attention to these crimes and ensures that the larger law enforcement community is able to accurately gauge the scope and responses to them.
Leadership is an aspect of policy that is not fully captured by executive orders or the passage of legislation into law. When a city leader marches in a Pride parade, a city joins a pro-equality amicus brief, a city council dedicates a park to an LGBTQ+ civil rights leader, or a city paints its crosswalks in rainbow colors, it sends a message to LGBTQ+ people that they are a valued part of the community.
At first glance, these actions may seem to be more symbol than substance; however, as HRC reported in its groundbreaking youth report in 2012, four in ten LGBTQ+ youth surveyed said the community in which they live is not accepting of LGBTQ+ people, and 60% of the youth surveyed said they heard negative messages about being LGBTQ+ from elected leaders.
Further, LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely as their peers to say they will need to move from their hometown in order to feel accepted. When elected leaders speak out on matters of equality, their constituents do hear—and it informs their constituents’ perception of safety, inclusion, and belonging.
This category, therefore, measures the commitment of the city to include the LGBTQ+ community and to advocate for full equality.
The first category rates city leadership (on a scale of zero to five points) on its public statements on matters of equality, particularly where the city leadership pushes for equality in the face of substantial adversity.
For example, a city would be awarded points if the city council passed a resolution in support of a state level non-discrimination bill—while this is not something the city can legislate, it is a powerful statement of the city’s principles nonetheless.
The level of support for pro-equality legislation is also reflected in this section. The second category rates the persistence of the city leadership in pursuing legislation or policies that further equality (on a scale of zero to three points).
Note that even small or unsuccessful efforts are recognized in this category, and that these efforts may be heavily weighted if the city’s political environment is not conducive to passing pro-equality legislation.
Finally, this section also includes two opportunities to earn flex points: first, for openly LGBTQ+ people holding elected or appointed office in the municipality (two flex points); and second, for cities who do all they can in the face of state law that restricts their ability to pass LGBTQ+-inclusive laws or policies (three flex points).
When elected leaders speak out on matters of equality, their constituents do hear—and it informs their constituents’ perception of safety, inclusion, and belonging.
The MEI is designed to understand the unique situation of each city and is structured to reward the specific achievements of a local government.
Some cities have the autonomy and wherewithal to pass inclusive laws and offer cutting-edge city services; other cities are hampered by severe state-imposed limitations on their ability to pass inclusive laws, or they have found that the small scope of their local government limits their capabilities.
The MEI is designed to understand the unique situation of each city and is structured to reward the specific achievements of a local government. The efforts and achievements of each city can only be fairly judged within that city’s context; while imposing a score may seem to strip a city of its context, the MEI honors the different situations from which the selected cities come in three major ways:
First, in addition to the 100 standard points for city laws and services, the MEI includes 22 flex points. Flex points are awarded for essential programs, protections, or benefits that are not attainable or very difficult to attain for some cities; therefore, cities with the item are rewarded, but cities without it are not penalized. Flex points can also provide some leeway for cities that face challenges in accomplishing the specific achievements the MEI measures, and ensure that every city has the ability to improve its score for next year.
CONSIDERATION OF STATE LAW
Second, the MEI weights state and municipal law such that the effect of excellent or restrictive state law does not determine the city’s ability to score well.
Third, it also rates the city leadership’s public position on LGBTQ+ equality and gives credit for legislative efforts (even unsuccessful efforts), so if a city has outspoken advocates for equality who are unfortunately still in the minority, the city will still receive credit for the efforts it has made.
The Municipal Equality Index is carefully designed to rate cities in detail while respecting that a number of factors may boost or inhibit a city’s ability or incentives to adopt the laws and policies this project rates.
Given the range of authority and incentives that cities have, and acknowledging that our effort to rate small cities as well as large cities exacerbates these challenges, the MEI had to wrestle with three major questions in its initial design.
How could the MEI fairly take state law into account, particularly as the disparity between states with pro-equality laws and states without pro-equality laws continues to grow?
The answer is balance; the rating system would not be fair if cities were not able to score a 100 on the MEI without living in a state that had favorable state law. Allocating the points carefully to respect the dynamic relationship between state and local government was a must, and we concentrated on what the state law meant for the city being rated.
How could the MEI assess a list of cities as diverse as those selected while acknowledging that the smaller places rated may understandably have less capacity to engage on LGBTQ+ issues?
We addressed concerns about a small city’s capacity to affect change by building flexibility into the scorecard through the use of flex points and by providing multiple avenues toward earning points.
What do MEI scores say about the atmosphere for LGBTQ+ people living and working in a particular place?
This last point is to recognize that even the most thoughtful survey of laws and policies cannot objectively assess the efficacy of enforcement and it certainly cannot encapsulate the lived experience of discrimination that many LGBTQ+ people—even those living in 100-point cities—face every day.
This question can only be answered by precisely defining what the MEI is designed to do: the MEI is an evaluation of municipal laws and policies.
It is not a rating of the best places for LGBTQ+ people to live, nor is it an evaluation of the adequacy or effectiveness of enforcement.
It is not an encapsulation of what it feels like to be an LGBTQ+ person walking down the street. While some LGBTQ+ people may prefer to live in cities that respect and include them, there are undoubtedly many other factors that make a community a welcoming, inclusive place to live.
To be clear, the MEI specifically rates cities on their laws and policies while respecting the legal and political context the city operates within. It is not a measure of an LGBTQ+ person’s lived experience in that city.
The MEI rates municipalities as small as Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (2010 population according to the US Census: 1,327) and as large as New York City (2010 population according to the US Census: 8,175,136). Such a range in city size creates concerns about ensuring that the efforts of small cities are not diminished in comparison to the capabilities of large cities.
Fairness dictates that the MEI not measure small cities against a standard only the metropolitan giants of the country can meet.
The MEI is designed to ensure that small cities have the same ability to score well on the MEI as large cities do.
First, while some of the criteria might be more challenging for a small city to accomplish, none of the non-flex criteria are prohibitive for small cities. Further, flexibility was built into the scoring system to acknowledge that a small city may accomplish the criteria in a slightly different manner: for example, an LGBTQ+ liaison may have many other duties, and a Human Rights Commission might be all-volunteer.
Second, the MEI uses flex points to ensure cities are not being held accountable for services that they simply are unable to provide.
Points pertaining to a city’s administrative structure and capabilities are generally flex points and there often are multiple paths to earning the same set of points.
Having alternative paths to the same points and classifying some points as flex points accommodates the varying needs and capabilities of different sized cities.
An analysis of the MEI’s results over the past several editions shows these efforts to accommodate small cities worked: small cities were able to score comparably with the large cities.
More than half of the cities rated qualify as “small”, and these continue to be represented more or less proportionally across the range of scores, including top scores. In every edition the data has clearly shown that a city’s score is not well predicted by its size.
Cities are creations of the state. Cities are granted the power to govern by their states, and some states have multiple classes of cities that are invested with varying degrees of autonomy. Some cities are granted so much power that they have nearly complete independence, but other cities—particularly smaller cities—are more limited in the scope of their city government.
To be a worthwhile survey of cities across states, the MEI must be respectful of how different cities are from one another.
This is especially true when LGBTQ+ law is the subject being surveyed. Some cities are hampered from passing pro-equality laws by state law that limits their ability to do so; others come from states with strong pro-equality laws that ensure a high level of legal protections for all.
The MEI balances the influence of LGTBQ-inclusive state law by weighing state and local laws equally, and by not awarding double points to a city fortunate enough to have protections at both the state and local levels. If a state has a comprehensive and inclusive non-discrimination law, a city may not be incentivized to pass an ordinance extending duplicative protections, but it should still have those protections reflected in its score.
Conversely, the city should be able to achieve a top score on the basis of municipal law alone—otherwise the MEI would not be a true evaluation of cities. The success of this balanced approach is demonstrated by a number of cities who were able to achieve top scores despite being in states that do not have pro-equality laws.
Some states restrict their cities from passing inclusive laws either by passing specific legislation that prohibits cities from doing so or through application of the Dillon’s Rule (which prevents cities from providing broader non-discrimination protections than those offered under state law) to LGBTQ+-inclusive legislation
An example of restrictive legislation is a Tennessee law that prohibits municipalities from passing non-discrimination ordinances that affect private employees. Because of these types of restrictions, not every city has the power to enact the types of legislation that the MEI measures.
Cities with a dedication to equality that are in Tennessee and North Carolina, for example, will never be able to score as well as cities with comparable dedication to equality that exist in states without the restrictive laws.
However, the MEI provides avenues for cities who are dedicated to equality—as some cities in North Carolina and Tennessee are—to have that commitment reflected in their score despite restrictive state law.
Flex points are offered for testing the limits of these state restrictions, while standard points reflect city leadership advocating against the state restrictions.
These flex points help to level the playing field for restricted cities; however, the small number of cities suffering such restrictions will find it extremely challenging—and, in some cases, perhaps impossible—to score a 100 on the MEI.
While this may initially appear to be at odds with the MEI’s purpose of evaluating what cities do, the bottom line is that these vital protections don’t exist for the folks who live and work in these cities. That these cities will face an uphill battle in earning points for certain criteria on the MEI is a reflection of the actual difficulties they face as a result of restrictive state law.
Ameliorating the effect of a restrictive state law on the MEI score would be a dishonest representation of the protections that the city truly does offer.
Having alternative paths to the same points and classifying some points as flex points accommodates the varying needs and capabilities of different sized cities.
There is much to celebrate in this, the tenth edition of the Muncipial Equality Index, and the accomplishments of cities reflected in the 2021 MEI are all the more considerable given that the standards for credit for a critical criterion, transgender-inclusive health benefits, was strengthened this year. Access to affirming, medically-necessary health care is too often very difficult for transgender people, and ensuring that all employees and their dependents are able to access health care that meets their needs is a major component of creating an equitable workplace.
For transgender employees, and for employees who have transgender dependents, these benefits are truly essential. In 2021, the existing standards for credit were strengthened to ensure that all laboratory services and all gender-related medical visits be expressly enumerated as covered care.
That’s why having the number of municipalities who offer transgender-inclusive health benefits increase, even slightly, is so significant: that means that more people have truly meaningful coverage of the medically-necessary care that they require.
But there’s more: this anniversary edition of the MEI boasted the largest number of top-scoring cities in MEI history, the highest overall average, and growth in every region of the country. Even as state legislatures attacked equality at the state level, local officials listened to their constituents and addressed the real problems and served their communities. The MEI - all ten editions of it, but especially the 2021 MEI - celebrates these cities and their relentless efforts to advance matters of equality against all odds.
LGBTQ+ equality isn’t just for people who live on the coasts, or in big cities. LGBTQ+ people live in every county of America. To truly impact LGBTQ+ lives we must find a way to impact all of these communities. Those were some of the founding ideas that informed the Municipal Equality Index at its inception, and they remain as true now as they were in 2012. HRC had seen our Corporate Equality Index make great strides in bringing LGBTQ+ issues to the forefront of the corporate world, and trained its sights at helping provide a similar scorecard to cities to educate them about the importance of LGBTQ+ laws and policies. The resulting report quickly became one of HRC’s most-utilized resources.
City leaders generally don’t need to be told that an investment in equality is an investment in their community. What they don’t always know is how to get started. That is what the MEI does: it provides a to-do list. And after ten editions of the Municipal Equality Index rating, challenging, guiding, educating, and celebrating, there is ten years of data supporting this theory of change. The MEI is not simply a story of a few outlying high-performers continuing to improve; it is a story of sustained, transformational growth in cities of every size in every region of the country.
MEI 2021 Boasts Ten Times More Hundred Point Scores Than Did MEI 2012
The most exciting statistic to come from the tenth edition is how many cities achieved the MEI’s top score of 100 points. 202I’s MEI boasts the most 100 point scores that the MEI has ever had: 110 cities received the MEI’s top score this year. That’s ten times as many cities as achieved 100 point scores in the MEI’s debut 2012 edition. Of course, the number of cities rated has increased by more than three times since then, but the number of hundreds as a percentage of cities rated has increased from 8% in 2012 to 22% in 2021.
Note that it was not inflation that pushed scores higher: as explained further below, the scorecard has become more rigorous over time. The percentage of cities scoring zero percent remained steady, remaining between 1-3% of cities rated each year. Even as improvements in state law lifted some scores, the number of zeros remaining consistent shows that the adjustments to the scorecard continued to hold cities accountable for the work that they themselves did.
Scores Rising Across the Board
The MEI, however, is an indication of progress, and just as important as the numbers of 100 point scores is the overall trend of improving scores for all cities. 2014 scores were an anomaly, with many cities experiencing a temporary artificial inflation of their scores as a result of federal circuit court decisions bringing marriage equality to their states. This distorts trendlines, but counterbalancing adjustments were made to the scorecard in 2015, and otherwise it is clear in the data that MEI scores delineating the top quartile, median score, and bottom quartile all have steadily increased.
This year, 25% of cities scored higher than 96 points; the median score was 69 points; and 75% of cities scored better than 48 points. Compare this to 80, 64, and 40 points respectively in the 2012 report or 78, 59, and 31 in 2015 after the post-marriage equality scorecard adjustment. That means that city scores have been increasing slowly but steadily even among the mid- and low-performing cities.The MEI isn’t simply a story of a few outlying high-performers continuing to improve; it is a story of sustained improvement in cities of every size in every region of the country.
Changes to the MEI
The MEI itself evolved over time, both in the number of cities rated and in the criteria used for rating.The inaugural report rated 137 cities, including the state capitals and the nation’s 50 largest cities as well as 25 small, 25 medium, and 25 large cities designated in a report by the Williams Institute as having the highest proportions of same-sex couples. Over time, the MEI added the largest cities in each state (first three, then four, and then five), as well as more of the nation’s largest cities (first 150 and then the 200 largest) and added the cities home to the state’s largest public university. By 2016 the MEI was rating 506 municipalities, having also added 98 cities selected by HRC and Equality Federation state groups members and supporters. That number has held constant since 2016, although each year the MEI team works with additional cities and counties that would like to be rated but do not fall into any of these categories.
The scorecard also became more rigorous over time. As an example, transgender-inclusive health benefits have been rated in different ways over the course of the MEI’s ten years. They were introduced as “flex” points - meaning that cities got credit for having an inclusive plan but were not penalized for not having one - but shortly thereafter they became standard points - meaning that a city was penalized for not offering them.
With support from the MEI team, cities were able to work with their insurers and the number of cities offering employees and their families transgender-inclusive health care benefits began to slowly grow. After the 2020 report, the standards for credit were tightened, requiring cities to expressly include additional types of care in order to receive credit. The changes in the way the benefits were evaluated made sure to respect the ability of cities to address concerns at the same time that it educated and pushed cities to do more. In 2021, 281 cities provide transgender-inclusive health care benefits - 175 more than did so in 2012, when five cities provided such plans.
Transgender-inclusive health benefits demonstrate the importance of the MEI as a “roadmap”. Many cities want and intend to do well by their LGBTQ+ employees, elected officials, and community members, but don’t necessarily know where to start. The MEI provides cities with a to-do list, and the MEI team helps provide education and resources to help manifest good intentions into meaningful policies. The MEI’s combination of education, incentive, and empowerment led to the dramatic expansion in availability of transgender-inclusive health benefits to city employees and their families.
Municipal Equality in Every Region of U.S., In Cities of All Sizes
Finally, a critical takeaway of the Municipal Equality Index’s ten editions is that progress is happening in every region of the country, and in cities large and small. Controlling for the distorting effect that marriage equality had on 2014 scores, the MEI shows that scores improved over the entire country, and at roughly the same rate. Prior to the Obergefell decision, marriage equality had been determined by decisions by federal circuit courts, which are geographically concentrated and similar to our regional classifications. Post-Obergefell MEI data, however, show growth in scores in every region of the country.
The same holds true for cities of all sizes. The average score of small cities - cities with populations of less than 100,000 people - increased 12 points from the inaugural edition to now; medium sized cities - populations between 100,000 and 250,000 - have seen the average score increase 15 points; and large cities (250,000 people or more) have seen the average score rise 21 points in ten editions.
The inaugural edition of the MEI rated 137 cities and had 11 hundreds, and the overall average score was 59 points. In 2012, those 137 cities averaged 85 points. In 2012, a score of 80 points marked the top quarter of city scores; in 2021, 25% of cities scored 96 points or better. Much has changed since the first edition of the MEI, and perhaps because of it - but one thing that stays the same is the perseverance of municipal leadership to continue to fight for their LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors to be included and welcomed. As the MEI turns ten it is proud to be supporting and amplifying these actions. Sometimes they’re loud, like an impassioned city council meeting; sometimes they’re as quiet as a pronoun pin. Sometimes they’re flashy, like a rainbow-striped crosswalk, and sometimes they’re downright boring, like an updated benefits booklet. But each of these things, in their own way, changes lives. This report marks a tenth opportunity to extend a sincerely meant thank you to each person who has used the MEI to make change. The MEI is the story of the work that you have done.
Municipalities not currently rated by the MEI can submit their city for rating by completing the self-submit process.
ABOUT THE MEI TEAM
SARAH WARBELOW is the Legal Director for the Human Rights Campaign, where she leads HRC’s team of litigators, policy attorneys and law fellows, and oversees the Municipal Equality and State Equality Indices.
CATHRYN OAKLEY is HRC’s State Legislative Director and Senior Counsel and the founding author of the Municipal Equality Index. She supervises the Municipal Equality Index and State Equality Index and state and local policy work.
COLIN KUTNEY is HRC’s Associate Director of State and Municipal Programs, where he manages both the Municipal Equality Index and the State Equality Index each year. Colin is the face of and powerhouse behind the MEI as well as the resources the MEI project provides to cities and counties looking to make their communities more inclusive.
BRITTNY PHAM is the Legal Coordinator, and her assistance in creating the MEI this year was truly indispensable.
To reach the MEI team with questions, comments, suggestions, or other resources, please email email@example.com.
The MEI is an unmatched assessment of municipal equality that would not see the light of day without the commitment and contributions of many individuals working together over the course of the entire year.
This year we extend a special thanks to Xavier Persad, former Senior Legislative Counsel at HRC, who assisted with the initial phases of the 2021 MEI. We also thank HRC colleagues Aryn Fields, Ella Schneiberg, Robert Villaflor, Carly Fox, Jon Groat, HRC’s McCleary Law Fellows, Shannon McDermott and Eliza Cussen.
Finally, thanks to General Design Co., Viget, and Boletus Films LLC for making the magic of the MEI come to life.
EQUALITY FEDERATION INSTITUTE
As always, this work happens because of our dedicated partners at the Equality Federation Institute. The achievements we celebrate in this publication are often theirs. The state groups on the following page deserve a special mention for their engagement and support this year.
For questions or additional information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.hrc.org/mei.
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