The city council of Boise, Idaho voted this month to extend anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations to its residents, the second city to legislate anti-bias measures in the staunchly conservative state.
In the absence of state or federal protections, cities like Boise are filling in the blanks across the nation to stand up for the LGBT community.
The hole is obvious: Federal civil rights laws protect citizens against discrimination based on national origin, race, color, religion, disability, sex and familial status. Noticeably absent from the list is any mention of sexual orientation or gender identity. If an employer wants to fire a gay employee or a restaurant chooses not to serve a lesbian couple, that’s A-OK in the eyes of Uncle Sam.
Where the federal government lies down on the job, some states have stepped up. Twenty-one states plus Washington, D.C. ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, with all but five of them also including protections for gender identity or expression.
That still leaves 29 states where gays and lesbians can be fired or evicted at will, but where the states and federal government fail to protect their citizens many localities are passing their own anti-discrimination laws.
Cities Step Up
Boise is only the latest of some 163-plus cities and counties around the nation that have anti-bias laws on the books for LGBT residents. Many are found in states traditionally considered conservative whose legislatures may be hostile to LGBT issues: Idaho, Georgia, Kansas and more. A number of towns in Kentucky are currently pushing anti-bias measures.
“There’s a way to look at these states and say they’re so conservative, how can they be working on LGBT equality?” points out Cathryn Oakley, legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy for the Human Rights Campaign. “But that’s where the most opportunity is.”
“Having a municipal non-discrimination policy is incredibly powerful,” Oakley says. “It’s saying people can’t be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — something they will not have if they’re in a state without protections.”
The Human Rights Campaign maintains a municipal equality index ranking 137 cities on LGBT-friendly policies, including anti-discrimination laws. Oakley highlights Salt lake City, Utah; St. Louis, Mo.; Philadelphia, Penn. and Austin and Fort Worth in Texas as cities that stand out for their strong policies. “They’re all in places where there aren’t good state laws that provide non-discrimination protection so they’ve had to do the entire list on their own,” she says.
Orientation, Expression, Identity
What goes into a good anti-discrimination bill? “The three most common [elements] are employment, housing and public accommodation,” Oakley says. “Sometimes you also see it in credit.” Essentially, the laws give LGBT citizens the same rights as everyone else to live, work and circulate in public without fear they could face adverse action based on who they are or who they love.
A strong law also covers gender identity and expression in addition to orientation to protect transgender people, as well as gays, lesbians and bisexuals. “Protecting people from being fired, from being denied housing and from being denied public accommodations is really important because those people really are experiencing tremendous discrimination,” says Oakley.
On top of looking out for residents’ basic civil rights, cities that grant equality to their LGBT populations may get a boost in retaining talented workers who might otherwise take off for more friendly confines, according to a growing body of research. If the states and federal government refuse to act, will more cities follow suit?