By Terrance Turner
Houston’s Pride parade is one of the 10 most popular in America, according to real-estate website Redfin. But behind this glowing honor lies a troubling reality. Houston is the only Southern city on the list—and the only city without a nondiscrimination ordinance.
And the dubious distinctions don’t end there: Houston is also the only city on the list that failed to achieve a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s “Municipal Equality Index.”
The HRC, the nation’s largest LGBT civil-rights organization, evaluates cities and municipalities every year, based on how inclusive they are of LGBT people who live and work there. The 2015 MEI, released in December, rates 408 cities. This includes the 200 largest in the U.S., the five largest cities in each state, the 50 state capitals, the 75 cities with the highest proportion of same-sex couples, and the cities that have their state’s largest public universities.
The HRC ratings are based on five criteria, broken down into these sections:
Section I focuses on whether a city or municipality prohibits discrimination in private employment, housing, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Cities receive five points each for both demographics.
Section II grades them on how well (if at all) they outlaw discrimination in city employment. “This can be established either via an enumerated municipal ordinance that expressly includes city employees, or via an enumerated equal employment opportunity policy adopted by the municipality,” according to the HRC website’s “Standards for Credit on the MEI.” Points are also awarded based on whether the city mandates nondiscrimination policies for city contractors. Further, the city “must provide at least one health insurance plan that provides coverage for transgender healthcare needs (sex reassignment surgeries, hormone replacement therapy, and other gender-affirming care).”
Section III grades the city’s inclusion of LGBT people in city services and programs. It must have a “Human Rights Commission” that works to eliminate discriminatory behavior and an LGBT liaison to the City Executive that ensures the concerns of the community will be heard. A city can also receive credit for anti-bullying policies: “To receive credit in this category, a city or county ordinance, state statute, or school district/school board policy must specifically prohibit bullying and enumerate the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited grounds upon which to bully.”
Section IV issues scores based on two categories. First, a city has to have an official LGBT police liaison or task force devoted to addressing the community’s concerns; second, it must report hate crimes statistics to the FBI in all categories.
Finally, Section V, “Relationship with the LGBT Community,” examines the leadership’s public positions on equality and its legislative or policy efforts to achieve it.
Eight of the cities on Redfin’s list—San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, New York City, Seattle, Boston, and Portland—all scored a perfect 100 on the MEI. In Section I, which concerned nondiscrimination laws in the city and was worth the most points, they all earned 30 out of 30. Washington DC was not ranked on the list, but an individual scorecard found on HRC.org found that it, too, would have scored perfectly. The District of Columbia, like the other eight cities, prohibits unequal treatment in housing, employment, and public accommodations, which would have led to a score of 30 out of 30 points.
Houston earned only one point, since there is no ordinance in place to help prevent LGBT discrimination. Furthermore, in Section III, titled “Municipal Services” and worth 16 points, the city garnered zero. (The only other city that was less than flawless in this regard was Portland. It doesn’t have an LGBT liaison to the mayor, but tallied 11 points anyway; the city has a Human Rights Commission, and Oregon has expanded anti-bullying school policies to include LGBT students. Neither Houston nor Texas has done so.) Despite respectable showings in the other three sections, Houston ultimately earned a paltry score of 48.
The need to improve this dismal rating is even more urgent in the wake of the Orlando massacre. Houston’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens are not only vulnerable to violent attacks in our safe spaces, but to insidious injustice outside of them. As House Democrats stage protests to force a vote on gun control measures, let us remember that they are not the only ones capable of displaying strength through numbers. If 100 representatives can make their voices heard on the House floor, how much louder could 700,000 Pride festival-goers be at a City Hall demonstration?