It’s 2019. The famed Stonewall Inn is now a photo-op for pop singers releasing new albums and politicians campaigning for president. An openly gay man has claimed the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks, and lesbian players led the U.S. women’s soccer team to their fourth title since 1990.
But in 25 of America’s 100 largest cities, LGBTQ people still have no explicit protections—whether at the state or local level—from discrimination.
As the LGBTQ community cools down from Pride Month, NewNowNext partnered with the Movement Advancement Project to see just how far U.S. cities have come since East Lansing, Michigan, became the first city to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation back in 1972. According to the nonprofit think tank, a significant number of major metropolitan areas are continuing to fall behind.
“Municipalities have, for decades, often led the way in protecting and promoting LGBTQ civil rights,” Logan Casey, policy researcher at Movement Advancement Project, tells NewNowNext. “But in many places across the country, whether LGBTQ people are protected against discrimination still depends on where they live.”
Data from the Movement Advancement Project in 39 of the top 100 U.S. cities.
Among the nearly one in four top 100 cities with no protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in areas like housing, employment, and public accommodations, the largest are Houston, Texas (no. 4) and Charlotte, North Carolina (no. 16).
Both of those cities had nondiscrimination laws on the books until late 2015 and early 2016. Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, also known as HERO, was struck down at the ballot box following a right-wing smear campaign which claimed the LGBTQ-inclusive protections allowed predators to sneak into women’s bathrooms and prey on young girls. The Charlotte ordinance was repealed by House Bill 2, a since-amended “bathroom bill” preempting all local ordinances in the state.
Other cities which place high on the list hail from states with preemption laws like North Carolina’s. In 2011, Tennessee passed the “Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act,” which prevents cities like Nashville (no. 24) and Memphis (no. 26) from going further than state lawmakers in preventing discrimination against LGBTQ people. Tennessee is one of 29 states without fully inclusive civil rights laws at the state level.
But two of the three states with the largest number of cities lacking LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws are not prevented from doing so by statewide mandate. Texas, the second largest state in the U.S., boasts seven top 100 cities that have yet to pass protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in either housing, employment, or public accommodations (or all of the above): the aforementioned Houston (no. 4), followed by Arlington (no. 48), Corpus Christi (no. 59), Laredo (no. 80), Lubbock (no. 84), Garland (no. 93), and Irving (no. 94).
Meanwhile, both North Carolina and Arizona claim five top 100 cities with zero civil rights laws for LGBTQ people. While Tucson and Phoenix do have comprehensive nondiscrimination laws, cities like Mesa (no. 35), Chandler (no. 82), Scottsdale (no. 85), Glendale (no. 87), and Gilbert (no. 88) do not. Unlike the Tar Heel State, Arizona has yet to pass a statewide preemption law.
Some of these cities, like Houston and Mesa, have limited protections against discrimination for LGBTQ city employees. Mesa, which is home to almost 500,000 people, has been called “America’s most conservative city.”
Of the top 100 cities that do have some form of LGBTQ protections on the books, five have yet to pass comprehensive laws in public accommodations, housing, and employment. The largest of these is San Antonio (no. 7), which recently made national headlines after it banned Chick-fil-a from opening a location at its airport, has protections for LGBTQ people in housing and public accommodations, but not employment.
Rounding out the list of cities with partial protections are El Paso (no. 22), Oklahoma City (no. 27), Tulsa (no. 47), and Fort Wayne, Indiana (no. 77).
While three-quarters of top 100 cities do fully protect their LGBTQ citizens, Casey says that seemingly sunny statistic comes with a caveat. “Many city residents are protected because of state-level protections,” he explains.
Looking at cities with populations of over 100,000 people, for example, Movement Advancement Project found that two out of three (66%) offer protections for LGBTQ residents in housing, employment, and public accommodations. However, 70% of those cities have protections not because of local ordinances but because of statewide bills, like the trans-inclusive nondiscrimination law signed by New Hampshire’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, last year.
Lawmakers at a press conference before the House voted in favor of the Equality Act this May.
“This shows just how critical it is for state and especially federal law to include explicit protections against discrimination for LGBTQ people,” Casey says, referencing the Equality Act, a nationwide LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill that passed the U.S. House for the first time earlier this year.
In its survey, Movement Advancement Project found large metropolitan areas were only slightly more likely than other cities to have some form of LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws on the books. Exactly 75% of the top 100 cities have protections in either housing, employment, or public accommodations (or all of the above), but so do 70% of cities with populations over 100,000 people. That’s 222 of 314 cities in total.
Of cities outside the top 100, those include Sioux Falls, S.D. (no. 140); Savannah, Georgia (no. 179); Waco, Texas (no. 197); Topeka, Kansas (no. 220); Fargo, North Dakota (no. 222), Billings, Montana (no. 276), and Tuscaloosa, Alabama (no. 308).
Deena Fidas, managing director for Out and Equal, says the results are not “surprising.” Many of the cities which lack protections for LGBTQ employees are located in the U.S. South, where not a single state has passed any form of nondiscrimination protections at the statewide level.
“When you see a map that's greyed out where there are no nondiscrimination protections, that's really the south,” she tells NewNowNext.
Securing these protections is critical for the LGBTQ community, according to Fidas. Research conducted by The Williams Institute, a pro-equality think tank at the University of California Los Angeles, indicates that more queer and transgender people live in southern states than any other U.S. region. An estimated 35% of America’s LGBTQ population calls states like Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi home.
Downtown Birmingham, Alabama.
While progress has been slow in many areas across the country, Fidas notes that some cities have become unlikely leaders in the fight for protections at the local level. Both Birmingham, Alabama, and Shreveport, Louisiana, scored perfect ratings of 100 on HRC's Municipal Equality Index. The yearly report ranks cities on whether they have a police liaison who assists law enforcement to better work with the LGBTQ community or inclusive healthcare benefits for transgender employees.
While Jackson, Mississippi, scored just a 75 overall, the Magnolia State capitol has a nondiscrimination policy that fully protects LGBTQ citizens in employment, housing, and public accommodations. This is despite a statewide law passed in 2016, House Bill 1523, which allows people of faith to refuse services to customers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity if they cite a religious reason for doing so.
Two other cities in Mississippi have nondiscrimination ordinances on the books, Clarksdale and Magnolia, but the fact remains still that most queer and transgender people in the state remain unprotected in all areas of their life.
Fidas says this must change, whether by passing the Equality Act or working city-by-city, state-by state to make sure LGBTQ people are able to live authentically.
“The absence of these protections affects everything from an LGBTQ person's ability to get a job, the ability to get a line of credit, or the ability to rent a home or an apartment,” she says. “The average American needs to read this and needs to see the practical realities of what it means to navigate the United States as an LGBTQ American.”