A nationwide evaluation of municipal law.
HRC Foundation, November 2022 | 40 Minute Read
I am honored to share the 11th iteration of HRC’s Municipal Equality Index, the nation’s premier benchmarking tool designed to inform municipal officials, policy makers and business leaders on how well cities across the nation embody LGBTQ+ inclusion in their laws, policies, and services.
Over the past year, we have seen some amazing progress, and many pro-equality advancements. At the same time, we recognize the ongoing onslaught of attacks against LGBTQ+ rights and lives. Now, more than ever, we need our cities and municipalities to be places where all people are guaranteed the safety and protection they deserve. The leadership of our municipal leaders in this moment to defend and advance our progress could not be more important.
Since 2011, we have seen city leaders from across the country prioritize LGBTQ+ equality through political initiatives and inclusive social policies. This year, a record-breaking 118 cities earned the highest score of 100 – up from 110 in 2021. The national city score average jumped to an all-time high of 68 points, marking the fifth consecutive year of national average increases. And this advancement was not limited to just one part of the country -- almost every region of the U.S. achieved a higher average score than last year.
But it’s not just about the numbers. By prioritizing support and equal opportunity for LGBTQ+ people, allied municipal leaders are creating an environment where every resident, employee and visitor can thrive. They are driving equality forward, helping to make our country a better and brighter place for LGBTQ+ people, families and businesses. I’m proud to celebrate this progress as more and more LGBTQ+ people feel safe and welcomed in their communities.
And yet, we know there is still so much work to be done and so much more progress to be made. Our community has been living in a state of emergency. We’ve been rocked by numerous harmful attacks, making the need for progressive change at all levels urgent and imperative in protecting the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ people.
We are seeing shameful political attacks targeting trans and non-binary individuals, further fueling anti-trans stigma and putting already vulnerable members of our community at increased risk. This is especially true for BIPOC trans and non-binary people, who have the added burden of confronting the racism still prevalent within our society. Ultimately, dangerous legislation combined with hateful online rhetoric has real world -- and all too often fatal -- consequences for our entire community.
At the same time, with the fall of Roe, many women and LGBTQ+ people have lost or are losing access to abortion care. And many folks are still navigating the physical, emotional and financial toll of COVID-19 as well as MPOX.
We applaud so many local leaders for the progress we have seen. However, it is increasingly critical that municipal and city leaders address the many hurdles that have yet to be overcome as we fight to uphold the safety and dignity our LGBTQ+ community deserves. We honor our responsibility to our communities to work together to advance equity and equality, particularly for our most vulnerable. Together, alongside our incredible partners at the Equality Federation Institute and our statewide LGBTQ+ organizations, we will continue to build safe, welcoming and inclusive cities and municipalities for all LGBTQ+ people, without exception.
I am thankful to the leaders across the nation who have helped us break MEI records yet again. And I am ready to put my full force behind the battles we have ahead. I hope that this index will serve as a valuable tool in our shared journey to turn every city in every state into genuine safe spaces for all.
Kelley Robinson , 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.
For over ten years, 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 discrimination, conversion therapy, and bullying in the communities we call home, often despite a lack of state or federal laws.
This year, we faced relentless, heartbreaking attacks on LGBTQ+ people and our families in state legislatures. From laws that would exclude transgender youth from participating in school sports to denying gender-affirming medical care to banning the discussion of queer and trans identities in schools, anti-LGBTQ+ opponents tried everything to harm us. This was not just at the state level — we saw attacks at the local level via book bans and school policies that deny LGBTQ+ students’ rights and existence. Yet, during this discouraging year, I am heartened by the progress made to keep driving equality forward by local advocates.
We’re seeing an increase in state legislatures attacking LGBTQ+ young people, but cities and towns of every size are doing what they can to protect the lives of LGBTQ+ youth. From Minnesota to West Virginia, with the leadership of state equality groups, more and more local communities chose to protect their LGBTQ+ youth by passing bans on conversion “therapy.” In Ohio, four additional cities passed bans, including Cleveland and Akron, so now over 20% of the Ohio population lives in cities with conversion “therapy” bans!
From Texas to Michigan to North Carolina, state groups helped secure local nondiscrimination ordinances, bringing the number of municipalities with fully comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people to over 350 nationwide.
Even when we don’t achieve a win at the ballot box or city council, we continue to move the needle forward. Decades-long work at the local level to win equality has moved public support and brought forward a historic number of LGBTQ+ candidates for office this year!
We invite you to use this report to inspire and educate your communities about the progress we’ve made and the work ahead. As we look to 2023, 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
2022 was an extraordinarily difficult year for LGBTQ+ people across this nation. It may seem that division is all around us. But in municipalities, where democratic government is closest to the people, we see the opposite: yet again, this reports boasts a record number of cities achieving 100 point scores, a record number of “All-Star” cities excelling on this index without the support of codified non-discrimination protections at the state level, and the highest all-around city average the MEI has ever had. Cities understand that success requires building a community that includes and supports equality for everyone.
This dedication toward building a more inclusive world for LGBTQ+ people is especially notable because 2022 was the most anti-LGBTQ+ legislative session ever. The LGBTQ+ community, particularly and especially transgender youth, became fodder for state legislators who rejected these same principles of community and inclusion - as well as science, expert testimony, and the stories of those harmed by the legislative attacks - in favor of stoking division.
This edition marks the fifth consecutive year that the average city score has risen, despite a tightening of the MEI’s standards for credit in key areas. Having a record number of 100s helps - this year 120 cities scored one hundred points - but those 100s are driven by cities passing conversion therapy ordinances (this year, 41 cities without a statewide ban have done so) and ensuring cities offer truly inclusive health benefits to their transgender employees (188 cities do so this year). As ever, the MEI demonstrates the power of cities in more conservative states to move the needle for equality: cities in Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Montana, Michigan, Kansas, and Indiana achieved “All-Star” status on the MEI for the first time this year.
State and Regional Trends
35 state averages increased since the 2020 MEI. Cities in several states, notably West Virginia and Ohio, continued to pass local bans on conversion therapy as well as non-discrimination ordinances. Nearly every region of the country saw the regional average score increase this year. Even in the face of increased hostility to LGBTQ+ people by state legislatures, municipalities across the country continued to make their laws and policies more inclusive. More than 75% of cities rated in 2022 scored better than 51 points - which is an important marker to show that the work is truly happening everywhere. 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:
120 100-point cities, up from 110 last year.
Another record year with 188 cities offering transgender-inclusive health care benefits to city employees.
80 “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 74 last year.
41 municipalities have anti-conversion therapy ordinances in states with no state-level protections.
Only 6 zero-point scores.
In a year where hostility to LGBTQ+ people was at historic levels, cities continued to push forward on matters of equality. The 2022 boasts more perfect scores, a higher overall average, 75% of scores better than 51 points, and sustained success in every region of the country. Once again, the MEI has shown 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 118 Cities that Earned 100 Infographic...
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 2022 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 2022 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 incorporates 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 symbolic 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 LGBTQ+-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.
The MEI is an encapsulation of the best practices of inclusion followed by cities nationwide. It is a blueprint for positive change and an opportunity for cities to become aware of best practices in municipal equality. It is not a ranking of the friendliest cities to live in. It neither attempts to quantify how respectfully cities enforce their laws, nor does it try to gauge the experience of an LGBTQ+ person interacting with the police or city hall.
Fair and respectful implementation of the best practices described by the MEI is crucial if the policies are to have any meaning. Realistically, the MEI simply has no objective way of measuring the quality of enforcement. 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.
The MEI can make some limited, blunt judgments about the existence of enforcement, if not its quality. For example, one of the harder questions the MEI faces is evaluating how seriously police departments take anti-LGBTQ+ related violence. While the MEI awards points to cities that report hate crimes statistics to the FBI, it does not evaluate whether the report made by the police department to the FBI is an accurate reflection of hate crimes, whether detectives competently collected evidence related to proving a hate-related motivation for the violence or whether the police department created a safe space for victims to come forward. It doesn’t measure how respectful police are when making a stop, nor how the police decide whom to stop.
Collecting and assessing such data in an objective, thorough way would be impossible. However, a city will not receive credit for reporting hate crimes if the city hasn’t reported any hate crimes of any kind this year or for five previous years. The MEI deems this effectively non-reporting because the probability is very low that a city truly experienced zero hate crimes of any kind in five years. While this is a judgment call, it is the best measure the MEI has to determine if hate crimes are being taken seriously at the local level.
A 100-point city, then, may have terrific policies—a well-trained police force, a police liaison, and consistent hate crimes reporting—but nevertheless be an atmosphere in which LGBTQ+ people have intense fear of tangling with the police department. This fear may be magnified for LGBTQ+ people of color or undocumented LGBTQ+ immigrants, and the MEI reflects discrimination against those populations in only a general way. On the other hand, a police department in a 40-point city could have none of these policies but have a reputation for fair and respectful enforcement. The MEI specifically rates cities on their laws and policies; it is not a measure of an LGBTQ+ person’s living experience in that city.
Having alternative paths to the same points and classifying some points as flex points accommodates the varying needs and capabilities of different sized cities.
The Municipal Equality Index continues to put a spotlight on the important work toward municipal equality happening in cities of every state, in every region, regardless of the state’s partisan representation. Yet again, the MEI shows growth in important policies, benefits, and policies which have a tangible and important effect for LGBTQ+ people. Critical amongst these is access to age-appropriate, medically-necessary gender-affirming care for municipal employees and their dependents. The MEI shows continued growth in provision of inclusive benefits, which is critical to ensuring that all employees and their dependents are able to access health care that meets their needs.
The index continues to celebrate the successes of cities of all sizes, in every region of the country. “All-Star” cities - cities that had excellent scores in spite of being in states without explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people - were able to achieve that status regardless of being small, medium-size, or large cities. 108 small cities scored above the national average, as did 103 medium-size cities - showing that the MEI’s flexible structure continues to celebrate the work being done in places with smaller budgets but equally big hearts. This eleventh edition of the MEI celebrates these cities and their relentless efforts to advance matters of LGBTQ+ equality.
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.
KATHRYN E. HILL serves as legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, focusing on state and municipal level advocacy. She handles a range of issues, including those related to discrimination laws, conversion therapy bans, and LGBTQ+ youth.
BRITTNY PHAM is the Program Manager for State and Municipal Programs, where she manages both the Municipal Equality Index and the State Equality Index each year. Brittny administers the resources for the MEI project to provide to cities and counties looking to make their communities more inclusive.
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 Colin Kutney, former Associate Director of State and Municipal Programs at HRC, who assisted with the initial phases of the 2022 MEI. We also thank HRC colleagues Aryn Fields, Jared Todd, Kathryn Smith, Robert Villaflor, Carly Fox, Tarine Wright, Kiah Albritton, Brandon Hooks, Carolyn Simon, Summer Putnam, Alec Carrasco, Susan Paine and HRC’s McCleary Law Fellows and Legal Interns.
Finally, thanks to Noted Branding, Viget, and Heller Consulting 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.
100% of every HRC merchandise purchase fuels the fight for equality.