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Tucson gets perfect score for LGBTQ equality in Human Rights Campaign review

The city of Tucson earned a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, in an assessment of equality in city policies, laws and services released Thursday.

Arizona cities Tempe, Scottsdale and Phoenix also received scores of 100 out of 100 in HRC’s 2021 Municipal Equality Index, while Mesa, Glendale and Flagstaff were also recognized as “All Stars” in the index. It’s 10th year of the HRC's assessment, and this year they recognized 110 cities with perfect scores, up from just 11 when they began the review in 2012.

The HRC gave Tucson a 100-point score in 2020. Tucson's non-discrimination ordinance, City Code Chapter 17, was first passed in 1977 and makes it unlawful to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity along with race, color, religion, sex and other backgrounds.

Dr. Ravi Shah, CEO of the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, said the rating reflects the support LGBT people have from local governments in Tucson and the community, and it helps groups like SAAF recruit.

“We are a growing community here in Tucson, and we want people to join our community from all over the country,” said Shah, who moved from Chicago seven years ago. “Having these indexes that show that Tucson is truly a progressive, welcoming, supportive community is important for us to be able to recruit people from all over, from all walks of life, including folks who are LGBTQ-identifying from all backgrounds.”

Shah is also the first openly gay man elected to the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, and said he “never felt that my sexuality or my sexual orientation was an issue during any of interactions, whether as a parent or as a person running for office myself.”

“Tucson is a really amazing community for LGBTQ people of all ages and all backgrounds to call home,” Shah said. “We have a government that supports LGBTQ people. Our entire City Council, most of our county supervisors are all extremely supportive and allies of the community, and because of that we have some of the most progressive policies and laws in our community supporting and protecting LGBTQ+ people, including non-discrimination requirements here in Tucson and our region.”

“LGBTQ+ people are everywhere — in every city, county and ZIP code,” HCR Vice President of Policy and Political Affairs JoDee Winterhof said. “Adopting the policies outlined in the MEI have not only fostered safer and more inclusive communities, but it has also spurred economic growth by showcasing to residents, visitors and outside investor that their city is open to everyone.”

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Tucson was given points based on 49 criteria divided into five areas — non-discrimination laws, municipality as employer, municipal services, law enforcement and leadership on LGBTQ equality. Some of the reasons points were awarded include:

  • Whether discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited by the city.
  • If the city government offers equivalent benefits and protections to LGBTQ employees, awards contracts to fair-minded businesses and is taking steps to ensure an inclusive workplace.
  • LGBTQ constituents are included in city services and programs.
  • Whether there's fair enforcement of the law, reporting of hate crimes and respectful engagment with the LGBTQ community.
  • The city leadership is committed to fully include the LGBTQ community and to advocate for full equality.

Tucson came up short in two areas — municipality as employer and municipal services – giving it a regular score of 93 out of 100, but the city was also awarded 11 “flex points,” given by the HRC for “programs, protections, or benefits that are not attainable or very difficult to attain for some cities.” The flex points don't count towards the 100-point final score, and a city can’t score more than 100 points.

HRC gave Tucson employers 0 out of two points for their shortcomings as an inclusive workplace for LGBTQ and 0 out of five points to the city government for their lack of an “LGBTQ+  liaison in city executive's office.”

The city received 11 out of 22 flex points for having openly LGBTQ elected and appointed city leaders, providing support services for gay youth, providing services for homeless LGBTQ, providing city employees domestic partner benefits and because Pima County protects youth from conversion therapy, with points from the last area going indirectly to the city.

The average score for cities in Arizona was 84 out of 100. Tucson and Scottsdale tied in flex points while Phoenix received 13 and Tempe nine, making Tucson tied for the second most index points overall in the state.

Arizona has no statewide non-discrimination statutes that explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity, but its statewide average score is 17 points higher than the national average of 67.

Tucson was among the first cities in the nation to pass a law barring discrimination — including in employment — against gays and lesbians. That ordinance was passed unanimously by the City Council in the wake of the beating death of Richard Heakin, who was murdered leaving the Stonewall Tavern just north of Downtown in 1976. When his attackers were given a slap on the wrist in court, the local Tucson Pride chapter was formed, leading to the city ordinance.

Tucson was also one of the first cities to make it illegal to discriminate against transgender people, adding a provision about gender identity to the ordinance in 1999. The law covers discrimination in employment, housing and accommodation by businesses in the city.

An 11-member appointed Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues advises the mayor and members of the Council.

With a number of LGBT elected officials and high-ranking appointed leaders — from a former member of Congress to members of the City Council and Board of Supervisors, state legislators, area police chiefs and others — a candidate's sexual orientation has rarely been a prominent issue for local voters in recent decades.

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Even so, Shah said that “there is a lot of work that needs to happen” in Arizona, saying “unfortunately, our state Legislature is not very supportive to LGBTQ people.”

“I think we need to educate our elected officials better on what it means to be allies and what it means to support all of our community, which includes LGBTQ people, and make sure that we elect people to state offices, the state house, the state senate and our governorship who are supportive of the equality, rights and education of LGBTQ people throughout our state,” he said.

Shah said “not everything is perfect” regarding how supportive the Tucson community is. He mentioned the opposition that appeared against making sex education more LBGTQ-inclusive in TUSD and said “there are folks in our community who aren’t supportive.”

However, the country has become more inclusive and equitable for LGBTQ communities overall, the HCR report concluded, despite state lawmakers having ​​”zeroed in on attacking transgender and non-binary children—for no clear reason other than bigotry and hate (this year),” Winterhof said in a press release.

The report found that 181 cities in the U.S. have transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits for municipal employees, an increase from the five reported by the MEI in 2012.

It also found 43 cities have anti-conversion therapy ordinances in states with no state-level protections against the controversial therapy that tries to force heterosexuality on LGBTQ youth.

The report hails the work of local leaders in creating LGBTQ equality, but it also says the “patchwork of laws” protecting that equality proves the need for the Equality Act, a federal bill that would extend civil rights and prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in areas including housing, education, federal funding, employment, credit and the jury system.

The MEI has ratings for 506 cities though the 2012 Census determined that there were more than 89,000 local governments in the U.S. For their report, the HRC selected the 50 state capitals; the 200 largest cities in the U.S.; the five largest cities in each state; the cities home to the state’s two largest public universities; 75 cities that have high proportions of same-sex couples and 98 cities HRC members and supporters selected themselves.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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