HUNTINGTON — Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said in 2014 he was shocked to learn that the city had only scored a 45 on the Municipal Equality Index (MEI), the only nationwide assessment of LGBTQ+ equality regarding municipal policies, laws and services.
“I did not believe this truly indicated the hearts of the majority of people in Huntington, so we became intentional in our actions, with the goal to score 100,” Williams said.
On Thursday morning, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the educational arm of the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization, in partnership with the Equality Federation, released its 10th annual Municipal Equality Index (MEI) and it was announced that Huntington had received a perfect 100 score for the third year in a row.
“I am unbelievably proud to be the first West Virginia municipality to score 100 and even more proud that we have been able to do it for three consecutive years,” Williams said. “This is a strong indication on how communities can lead the state in diversity, equality and inclusion.”
Williams said the city’s “Open to All” anti-discrimination campaign now has over 300 participating businesses and organizations and continues to grow. He said the goal of the campaign is to promote diversity and inclusion by broadening views beyond race, gender and sexual orientation.
“Those participating in this campaign place a sticker on their door to let all citizens know they are coming to a safe place that is open to all,” he said.
Williams said it also encourages maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all employees, customers, visitors and vendors, regardless of race, religion, ancestry, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or income status.
“Receiving a perfect score in the 2021 Municipal Equality Index validates what our community already knows — that Huntington is a city of honor, respect and compassion,” Williams said.
Morgantown also received a 100 score for the first time, and Charleston was recognized with an “All-Star” designation with a score of 94.
Jack Jarvis, communications manager with Fairness West Virginia, said MEI All-Stars earned over 85 points despite hailing from a state without statewide non-discrimination statutes that explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Currently there are 21 states with explicit protections for LGBTQ+ people, including our neighboring state of Virginia,” Jarvis said. “Unfortunately, West Virginia is not one of them.”
This means in 29 states, including West Virginia, LGBTQ people can be denied access to public services because of who they are.
Jarvis said the Fairness Act has come before the West Virginia Legislature but has not progressed.
“While we have had support from both Democrats and Republicans, there are still others that have not supported us in passing the Fairness Act,” he said.
The average score on the index for cities in West Virginia is 65 out of 100 points, which falls 2 below the national average of 67. The City of Parkersburg scored a 13.
Williams said there is still a lot of work to be done.
“We are organizing our community so that every person has a distinct and vested responsibility to advance our city’s prosperity,” he said. “Our vision is that we embrace our diversity and actively seek inclusiveness as we learn to stand as one people celebrating our differences. We will be able to shape our future by assuring every person in our city has a seat at the table and has a voice to be heard.”
Williams said one concern he has on a state level is some legislators want to take away a municipality’s right to enact these types of protections and invalidate actions already taken by cities like Huntington.
“I believe municipalities in the state should have the right to self-governance. We will fight any attempt to take this away,” he said.
Jarvis added that 15 municipalities in West Virginia have adopted ordinances and laws to protect those in the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination.
“Those most recent have been Keyser and South Charleston,” he said. “These 15 cities represent about 15% of the state’s total population.”
“In West Virginia, we believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. That’s why so many of our communities have stepped up to the challenge to advance LGBTQ equality in new and exciting ways,” Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said in a prepared statement. “I’m proud of the hard work our municipal leaders have done over the past year, especially leaders in Morgantown and Charleston for being the first communities to ban the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy.”
This year, a record-breaking 110 cities throughout the country earned the highest score of 100, which is up from 11 in 2012, illustrating the striking advancements municipalities have made over the past 10 years, officials said.
The report also contains an issue brief for policymakers that covers how municipalities can support transgender and nonbinary individuals, as well as the types of challenges they face, ways that a city can support them and guidance on forming an anti-transgender and nonbinary violence prevention task force.
The full report, including detailed scorecards for every city as well as a searchable database, is available online at www.hrc.org/mei.