As the city wraps its yearlong 50 Years Forward commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement, a new report shows Birmingham is lagging behind on another human rights issue.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has issued the 2013 Municipal Equality Index (MEI), a report on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality in 291 of America’s cities, including five in Alabama.
Birmingham scored 9 out of 100 points in the index, while the average score for cities in Alabama is 14, which falls below the national average. Huntsville scored 17 points; Mobile scored 21 points; Montgomery scored 15 points; and Tuscaloosa scored 10 points.
The MEI rates cities based on 47 criteria falling under six broad categories — non-discrimination laws, relationship recognition, a municipality’s employment and contracting policies, inclusiveness of city services, law enforcement and municipal leadership on matters of equality.
“What HRC’s 2013 MEI shows is that while cities and states are making leaps and bounds towards greater equality across America, Alabama continues to lag behind,” said Fergus Tuohy, chair of Equality Alabama. “Not a single city in Alabama has an inclusive non-discrimination ordinance. … While these facts may seem discouraging on the surface, we are quite optimistic because of increasing vocal support from elected officials including Birmingham’s mayor and because of the resurgence in grassroots involvement evidenced by Equality Alabama’s growing membership.”
The mayor’s office didn’t respond to the report by the time this paper went to print; however, in June, after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, Mayor William Bell told CBS 42, “Having grown up here in Birmingham and having lived through discrimination and things of that nature, I’m a firm believer that all individuals are to be treated equally and fairly,” Mayor Bell said. “The decision by the Supreme Court in relation to DOMA is another step toward that equal respect for all individual rights.”
“This report,” said Tuohy, “should be a wake-up call for Alabamians who believe in fairness and equality.”
Twenty-five cities, including Atlanta, scored a perfect 100 on the index. Michael Hansen, communications chair of Equality Alabama, said, “These are cities where the local councils have passed nondiscrimination ordinances for everyday things like employment, housing and public accommodation. As employers, these cities likely have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity, domestic partner benefits and family leave for LGBT families. It’s likely these cities have established equal employment opportunity commissions or human rights commissions, like the one proposed by Birmingham City Council earlier in 2013.”
So how does falling below the national average translate with regard to the daily lives of LGBT in Alabama?
“Most of the things the cities with perfect scores have in place are everyday things: work, school, family, security,” said Hansen. “So for the LGBT community in Alabama, there’s still a fear of losing one’s job if an employer finds out they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Studies have shown that this is especially problematic in the ‘people of color’ (POC) community. Minorities who are also LGBT face even greater discrimination and prejudice. That’s why protections are needed; so that these people in our communities are free to be themselves and free from fear.”
Looking specifically at transgender people of color shows devastating, everyday hardships, Hansen said. “Getting a job is difficult for these individuals. Finding jobs with trans-inclusive health benefits is nearly impossible in some parts of Alabama.”
Passing the non-discrimination ordinance that’s on the table for Birmingham lawmakers, the city could, according to Hansen, “very easily turn Birmingham’s 9 into a 90 in the a few short months. The bottom line is that with nearby mega-cities like Atlanta and New Orleans sending a clear message that they welcome diversity, and cities like Birmingham sending the exact opposite signal, we can expect to continue to lose talented young people. We’re hemorrhaging educated, forward-thinking young professionals and students, which is ultimately a huge drain on our economy, culture, education system and overall quality of life.”
Losing talented citizens concerns Fergus Tuohy, too. “A lot of people overlook the economic impact of this to our state and to our communities. The reality is that we lose a lot of talented young people every year to other cities around the country. We’re bleeding talent, and a lot of the reason is that Alabama is an unfriendly place to the LGBT community.”
It’s a shame to not make better attempts to retain that talent, Tuohy said. “We talk about economic development in this state, yet we have these policies (or lack of policies and protections) — and quite frankly hateful rhetorical and discriminatory constitutional amendments in place — that tell a lot of people, ‘You’re not really welcome here.’”
Not feeling welcome impacts individuals and companies. “We have a lot of wonderful people here and great communities of folks,” Tuohy said. “So when we have such a horrible score — which is internationally recognized; a lot of people look at the HRC scoring of the municipal equality index just like they do the corporate equality index — businesses look at this when they think about relocating.”
Tuohy described the issues individuals and businesses now face because of the recent Supreme Court ruling. Because same-sex marriage rights are not legally acknowledged in Alabama, accountants and lawyers are trying to determine how taxes will be filed. Will same-sex couples file, as mandated, one federal return and then file two separate state returns? How will that impact them?
Those couples, in Alabama, are not entitled to their partners’ employment benefits. Tuohy asked this hypothetical question: “If I’m an executive at a large company that wants to move to another state, and I’m looking at Alabama, and I have a lot of same gender married couples in my firm that may be executives, how can I ask them to relocate to a place like this?”
The economic concerns surrounding this index, Tuohy said, should have the attention of all Alabamians, not just liberals. “Equal rights is not a liberal issue. It’s not a progressive issue. The argument can be made that it hits on as many core conservative principles as it does liberal.”
Several lawmakers have recognized and compared this with civil rights issues, Tuohy said. “It’s an economic issue, though, so why have they not moved more? There hasn’t been enough pressure for them to do it. [Equality Alabama] is going to continue to play out the economic impact of how our local businesses and families are suffering, because we’re losing dollars that would stay in this state — all because we don’t have these protections.”
As talk of revitalization and growth spreads throughout the city, Tuohy believes it’s imperative our community be more vocal about LGBT rights.
“If Birmingham came out and made a real declaration and said we’re going to be the first city in this state to come out with a non-discriminatory ordinance, and we’re going to be proud of it, that would be a big deal. That would draw positive national attention to our community. It would completely help to shatter a lot of negative views about this place that exist around the country.”