Among the ways we choose to evaluate where we live, few reports are more respected than that of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)’s Municipal Equality Index (MEI), an annual, comprehensive examination of cities’ laws, policies and services with regard to LGBT people and LGBT issues.
More than 400 cities were evaluated in 2015, the most in the four years the HRC has been producing this report. As one can expect, some cities are given very poor scores. And then many cities—47 across the country—are praised for a perfect score. All cities are judged from the same scorecard template, which may be a root of why I take so much issue with the MEI, how it’s conducted, what is measured, what isn’t measured and of course, what it says about cities with a perfect score.
The MEI’s full report gives much detail about each of the five parts of the scoring criteria: Non-Discrimination Laws, Municipality as Employer, Services and Programs, Law Enforcement and Relationship with the LGBT Community.
According to the author of the MEI, Cathryn Oakley, the criteria are revised every few years to reflect changes in society and needs. For example, recognition of same-gender marriages was once part of the criteria, but now that same-gender marriages are legal nation-wide (based on the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision), this item is no longer useful to score.
The data to determine each city’s score is collected by the MEI team, and then the MEI gives cities a chance to review the score and the data and give feedback prior to publication.
The visual representation of the MEI report for each city comes in the form of a scorecard. Each scorecard is two pages, and below is a screenshot of just one part of the whole scorecard.
In the circles that are half white and half navy, the white half represents points received based on sexual orientation, and the other half represents gender identity.
The white and navy points are considered essential, and the aqua blue circles represent bonus points.
You can find the full list of cities with their scorecards here.
The scorecard and what it doesn’t measure
In writing this piece, I had a hard time at first articulating what it is that bothers me so much about the MEI, and I eventually realized that what it measures is not something that actually matters to me.
In an effort to bring other voices in, I collected nine responses to the question: “In a ‘perfect world,’ what would queer equality look like?” I told these folks, all falling in the LGBTQIA acronym, that their answers could be regarding the social aspects of this ‘perfect world,’ the laws in place or whatever made the most sense to them, an open-ended question.
I realize that this was not a scientific process, and I realize the responses are purely anecdotal. That said, all nine answers differed greatly, and not a single answer mentioned a single line item of the 41 on the MEI.
Chris Kraft, who identifies as a cisgender, bisexual woman, said, “Maybe there should be some sort of unit on different types of identities and intersectional feminism.” I asked her to expand on that.
“I just feel like there should be some sort of baseline standard for understanding queer identities for high school students that doesn’t come from Tumblr. Readily available, free, welcoming access without any kind of outside judgment to mental health services and strong, caring advocates to get you through the government/school/health care systems.”
Another response was, “Indigenous self-determination, which might allow for indigenous people to recover our own gender systems from the colonially imposed Western gender system.”
A third was, “Queer spaces that aren’t centered on alcohol or sex.”
Of these three responses (and the other six I have not placed here for the sake of length), not a single person mentioned having an LGBT Liaison to the Mayor, a criteria item worth 5 percent of a city’s total score. Not a single person even mentioned having laws promoting non-discrimination in employment or housing (together worth up to 20 percent of the score).
Instead, the local LGBTQIA community is seeking something else. They are seeking something larger than laws. But these larger questions are not measured. Instead, the HRC measures official criteria, which has its uses, but its implication that these scores are indicative of how LGBT-friendly a city is (see title of this article about the results), is falling short of what actually affects queer people in these cities (hint: it’s not an LGBT Liaison to the Mayor!).
This brings us closer to home.
I feel lucky to live in a city like Minneapolis. I know that it’s more inclusive here for transgender people like myself than it is in many other cities. But I also know that this 100-out-of-100 points doesn’t speak to actual lived experiences. And I’m not the only one who sees flaws in this system.
Riah Roe, a community organizer and disability advocate, critiqued reports like the MEI, saying the metrics are “skewed toward a single identity”–which is often gay, white, cisgender and male–when in reality, most people are not just marginalized in one identity (in this case, LGBTQIA), but in several, (in race, economic status, ability, etc.).
There’s a gap in measurements like this, where the intersections of marginalized identities are not taken into account. LGBTQIA people who also have disabilities, according to Roe, face a unique set of challenges with access to systems that could help them, resources and even a life with romance and intimacy.
“People with disabilities have been forced into a community of asexuality,” Roe said. If a person with disabilities relies on a caretaker who is homophobic or otherwise insensitive to queer identities to make life decisions for them, there is little stopping the caretaker from preventing their client from partaking in sexual and/or romantic relationships.
Roe said people with disabilities need the state to define what guardians and caretakers can dictate, and what is considered a human right, like having a queer relationship, for example. Policy about persons with disabilities and the intersection of this identity with that of the queer community is nowhere to be found on the MEI.
Even those who don’t rely on a caretaker to make major life decisions for them face challenges accessing the good systems and resources that are in place.
“We don’t have enough outreach,” Roe said, “and we don’t have the numbers to show [these programs] are working.”
In other words, even if there are good laws on the books for queer people, they are not useful if all queer people do not have access to their benefits. When the MEI measures whether or not a city has a good non-discrimination law, it doesn’t also measure whether or not it actually helps people.
Roe added that if there is no census or data tracking of who needs help in the community, there is no way to serve that community.
“We have astronomical levels of transgender people who are experiencing unemployment and homelessness,” Roe said. It is illegal to be evicted because of one’s transgender or queer status. Regardless of the law, it still happens, but as Roe pointed out, hardly anyone is coming forward. “Is this a law on the books, or is this a policy that actually functions?”
Safety and equity as bonus points
When one surpasses the digestible list of top cities in the U.S. for the actual MEI reports, one will see the scoring has some standard items and some bonus items. A city can get up to 100 essential points and up to 20 bonus points, but the highest score a city can get is 100.
Not all of the bonus points seem like they should be extra.
An example: a city can get two bonus points if it “provides services to LGBT youth.”
It should go without saying that this is not an optional endeavor. According to Minneapolis’ MEI report, the city is 0-for-2 in providing these services, just as it is with providing services to LGBT homeless persons and providing services to LGBT elders. For St. Paul, it’s the same. Yet, both cities have received this aforementioned perfect score.
HRC defends these lines as “bonus” because they say that not all cities can achieve these items, that it would be unfair to judge all cities on the same playing field in these areas.
I understand how line items like “Cities are pro-equality despite restrictive state law” (another 2-point bonus line item) cannot apply to every city, because not every city resides in a state with restrictive laws. But how is it that LGBT youth are just extra credit? It’s not as if there are not LGBT youth in every city. One of the few line items in the MEI metrics that recognizes intersectional identities, the idea that LGBT people are often marginalized in more than just one way (in this case LGBT and youth), turns out to be optional for cities to address.
“We rate a lot of small cities,” said HRC’s MEI author, Cathryn Oakley. “If you’re a large city, and you’re offering city services. . .they should absolutely welcome LGBT people.” However, according to Oakley, not every city is large, or has the resources to have programs for LGBT youth, homeless and elders.
In the words of the 2015 MEI report itself:
Bonus points are awarded for essential programs, protections, or benefits that are not attainable or very difficult to attain for some cities; therefore, cities with the item are rewarded, but cities without it are not penalized.
Bonus points can also provide some leeway for cities that face challenges in accomplishing the specific achievements the MEI measures, and ensure that every city has the ability to improve its score for next year.
This last part really gets me. Cities face challenges making positive change for LGBT folks. But I don’t understand why these cities need leeway. No matter what the reason is, even if a city is small, there are LGBT youth in need of services. It seems like we’ve forgotten that we want life to be better than it is for LGBT people, and the goal is not to give a city an arbitrarily higher score.
“We like cities to be proud of their score,” said Oakley. “We want to be able to give cities every single possible point that they deserve.”
The point of LGBT activism and social justice is working toward change in the face of staunch opposition, which is why the work is so important. Why are we sugarcoating it in the name of a points game?
Having a queer liaison in the Mayor’s Office is a good thing, and I’m glad Minneapolis received full (five of five) points for that, but why is this more important than what is considered standard and in point-weight (five points possible instead of two) than taking care of our youth?
When I asked Oakley what the benefits are to having a rating system like the MEI, she said it “gives people who are doing this work a way to articulate what they’ve accomplished.”
And in the Twin Cities, we’ve accomplished a lot. We have wonderful organizations like Reclaim, which changes lives and arguably saves them too, but there’s also more demand than Reclaim has space. We still need more.
Both cities have been ahead of the game for non-discrimination laws for a while. For example, in 1993, Minnesota amended the Minnesota Human Rights Act to prohibit employers from discriminating based on the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person. This is good, and it helps show that Minnesotans believe queer people are actual human beings, but Minnesota is also an “at will” state, meaning that you can get fired for no reason at all. So perhaps on the books, nobody gets fired for being gay anymore, but a gay person can get terminated for, essentially, no reason. To me, this is pretty much the same thing. It’s as easy as not saying the real reason out loud for Human Resources to hear.
The work doesn’t stop when the points do, so attributing our success in the queer movement to a points system loses its utility when it’s acceptable for the LGBT youth, the LGBT homeless and our LGBT elders to not be explicitly able to receive city services, all in hopes to rate all cities with the same scorecard, all to give cities the chance to get a perfect score.
Perhaps instead of allowing what I see as essential, basic needs to be bonus points, we recognize our smaller cities and we focus on allocating funds and resources where they need it most. Can a city with a perfect score be satisfied when a city less than 100 miles away is struggling?
Quality of life and surviving at all
One of my best friends from high school and beyond killed himself in February of 2014. He, like myself, was a trans man. His city of Duluth, Minn., was not one of the proud recipients of a perfect score (it received a 71) but he spent time in Minneapolis as he was starting to transition.
There is no way to prove why he took his own life, but in the devastation he left, one like myself wonders if he would be alive if he were not trans, living in a world that is not kind to trans people. And he is unfortunately just one story of many fallen transgender people.
There is no way to put this lightly. In 2015, more trans people were killed than any other year in history.
More than 20 transgender women, most of whom were women of color, were killed last year in the U.S. alone. One of these women, Keisha Jenkins, was only 22 years old. She was from Philadelphia, which, by the way, received a perfect 100 MEI score by the HRC.
HRC’s MEI FAQ page admits that MEI efforts are not ranking the quality of life for LGBT people, instead an evaluation of laws and city services.
“It’s not a guarantee that every single person who is LGBT will have a 100 point experience,” Oakley said of basing a judgment of quality of life off of the MEI results. “We are not rating enforcement. We are not rating access.”
This to me begs the question: why are we evaluating our success in the queer movement based on laws? In some ways it doesn’t make a difference that determining the quality of life for queer people is not the intention of the HRC, as when they post headlines like “Top 47 U.S. Cities for LGBT Inclusivity,” they are not shying away from that implication.
A perfect score sounds a lot like a race finished. And as a transgender person who has lost a transgender friend to suicide, I don’t think we are done. Do Keisha Jenkins’ loved ones think Philadelphia is done?
There is no perfect score until not a single queer person all year dies because they are queer. This is not asking too much. It’s not asking enough.