Accused of ‘comical’ methodology, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group is taking heat from cities for its new Municipal Equality Index’s narrow focus on laws and policy and ‘one size fits all scoring’
Note: This article first appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.
By Scott Kearnan
The inaugural edition of this now-annual study examined municipal policies in 137 cities nationwide, and awarded points for criteria that ranged from employment non-discrimination laws to school anti-bullying initiatives. Based on its findings, the MEI ranked the LGBT-inclusiveness of each municipality on a point scale of 0 (that’s bad) to 100 (that’s good). Overall, New England fared fairly well: Boston and Cambridge were two of only 11 cities that scored a full 100 points. Hartford, Connecticut scored a solid 95, and Providence, Rhode Island received a so-so 76.
But other New England locales rated by the MEI, including several spots widely considered gay enclaves, received poor rankings. Provincetown scored just 59, Northampton 64, and Montpelier 68. Augusta, Maine received a 67, and Concord, New Hampshire received the region’s lowest score at 53. Yikes. New England prides itself as being a progressive region for LGBT people — yet if these were class grades, some of our prized pupils would have flunked the test.
That has many New Englanders steaming mad. They say the HRC study fails to accurately reflect LGBT life. Its methodology, they argue, applies cookie-cutter criteria without regard to the unique infrastructural realities of certain communities.
One critic is Provincetown’s Val Marmillion. Marmillion runs a national PR firm that works with the town’s tourism office, but he also has a personal connection to P’town; he has a home there, co-owns retail store The Little Red with his partner Juan Pisani, and is highly active in the local community. He takes exception with a study that would rank the LGBT-inclusiveness of Provincetown below that of, say, Albuquerque.
“This study did not apply key research or logic to its methodology to arrive at this outcome,” says Marmillion, who has extensive experience analyzing data for local government organizations; his firm has done strategic planning work for the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities. He says many pro-gay policies rewarded by the MEI are moot in Provincetown, where LGBT life is simply an established part of the social fabric. “I give credit to the HRC for stimulating conversation,” says Marmillion of the report. “But there is an almost comical lack of understanding of the threshold question: Where did these communities begin?”
Not so fast, says study author Cathryn Oakley. Oakley understands some will be surprised to see that a few famously gay-friendly locales received low scores. But she stresses that the MEI was not designed to reflect how welcoming or affirming a community is based on cultural values; it is not an LGBT “best places to live" list. Rather, the MEI was specifically designed to evaluate whether local governments have laws and policies that expressly protect LGBT people. And Oakley says that while there is no doubt New England is on the “right trajectory” when it comes to promoting LGBT equality, the MEI should encourage reflection on what more can still be done.
Why would the pro-gay sensibility of certain communities not already be reflected by municipal policies? “There are a few explanations,” says Oakley. “When you’re already known as a fantastic place for the LGBT community, there isn’t the same incentive. And when state law is good, people can get complacent. They believe they have protections that they don’t, or they stop seeing LGBT rights as a priority.”
Still, some local leaders take issue with how their communities were scored by the MEI. A chief criticism is that the report’s criteria was too challenging for small towns to meet. The MEI evaluated 137 locales that vary significantly in size: it chose to include all 50 state capitals, plus 25 each of those large-, mid-, and small-population cities with the highest proportion of same-sex couples. (It also surveyed cities with HRC steering committees.)
‘One Size Fits All Scoring’
That MEI applies unfair “one size fits all scoring,” says Montpelier city manager Will Fraser. The Green Mountain State has a reputation as a hippy hideaway — and according to a Gallup poll released in February, it ranks as the third most liberal in the country. (Only Massachusetts and Oregon have more self-identified progressives.) Yet its capital only scored 68 on the MEI.
But Montpelier’s population of 8,000 makes it America’s smallest state capital. Is it reasonable that it be subjected to the same criteria as, say, New York City? Several other New England spots surveyed are nearly as small: Provincetown has a population of about 3,400, Augusta about 19,000, and Northampton about 28,500. (Even Concord, New Hampshire, at 43,000 people, is well below the MEI “small city” ceiling of 100,000.)
“I understand the value of all these things,” says Fraser, reflecting on the report’s itemized requirements. “We just don’t have the resources for them.”
For instance, the MEI awards 7 points to a city if it has its own Human Rights Commission; 5 points if the city has a Mayoral LGBT Liaison or an Office of LGBT Affairs; and 7 points if the city has an LGBT Liaison or Task Force in its police department. Montpelier has none of the above — that’s 21 points missed, right off the bat.
But, says Fraser, Montpelier has a part-time, volunteer mayor who operates without an office staff: so no, there is no LGBT-dedicated department. And the police department has about 17 officers: so no, there is not an LGBT-specific Task Force. The MEI also identified that Montpelier does not require city contractors to have non-discrimination or equal benefits ordinances in place. (Lost: 8 points.) But Fraser says it’s too tall an order for a town the size of Montpelier to make such demands of contractors. “Larger cities have more financial clout,” says Fraser. In other words, telling a water or sewer company “you’ll never work in this town again!” is a bigger threat coming from a city that offers Boston-size business. “There are only so many contractors in Vermont; it’s not huge,” says Fraser. “We have to rely on state requirements when it comes to those issues.”
Does the MEI place smaller cities at a disadvantage? Size doesn’t matter, says author Oakley. She says the standard criteria are flexible enough to allow small cities to score on par with large ones (an LGBT affairs office could be volunteer-based, for instance), that various “bonus point” categories offered avenues to make up the difference, and that the ultimate MEI results did not show a statistically significant correlation between city size and city score.
But evaluating large metropolises alongside tiny towns was not the criticism local officials had for the MEI. Others say that the report seemed to reflect missing or incomplete information. Oakley says that the report reflects months of research about each city, and that after data was compiled scorecards were sent to city officials — typically via the mayor’s office — for review. But Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz says he didn’t find out about the MEI until its publication, and was unable to find anyone in his office who said they had been contacted by the HRC. “The gaps of information leave me scratching my head,” says Narkewicz.
Northampton: ‘We Don’t Fit On This Scale’
For instance, the MEI indicates that Northampton did not report 2010 hate crimes statistics to the FBI, thereby denying the city 10 points. But the actual FBI report shows that Northampton did file statistics for every quarter of that year. (Reporting a total of zero crimes.) The MEI also withholds 8 points from Northampton because it does not have an LGBT Liaison in its police department. Ironically, it was Northampton police officer Preston Horton that founded the Gay Officers Action League of New England (GOAL-NE) all the way back in 1991. Oakley says the MEI doesn’t give credit for bygone accomplishments, just the current state of affairs; but Narkewicz maintains that the LGBT liaison role still exists, and that one of the force’s highest ranking officers is an out man.
Northampton also misses out on 5 points because it does not have a Mayoral LGBT Liaison. Well, that’s true. But before Narkewicz assumed the post in 2012, Northampton spent the prior 12 years under lesbian mayor Mary Clare Higgins. A special liaison doesn’t seem necessary when the mayor herself is openly gay; and after a decade-plus with an out mayor, not to mention several other gay high-ranking city officials, is it fair to assume that the LGBT community has an established relationship with city hall?
“I think that maybe we’re so far out [on LGBT issues] we don’t fit on this scale,” says Mayor Narkewicz of the MEI. “We’re so far ahead of the curve.”
“I just don’t think you’d find the need for certain policies or institutions here,” agrees William Bridgeo, city manager of Augusta, Maine. In November 2012, Maine joined Maryland and Washington as the first states in the country to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. Shortly after, Augusta resident Dale McCormack, a founder of EqualityMaine and the first openly gay person elected to the state legislature, told the Kennebec-Journal that LGBT people were probably too well-ensconced in the overall fabric of the community to require, say, a special liaison. “I don’t think we have liaison to any one ethnic group or minority,” McCormack told the paper as comment on the MEI. “I don’t think any of us care if we have a liaison.”
Officials in Provincetown, Montpelier, Northampton, and Augusta acknowledge that the MEI is designed to rate city laws, not LGBT-friendliness; but they say the progressive culture of New England is precisely why special local policies are not necessary. The same protections needed in Mississippi are not needed in Massachusetts, and low ratings for certain New England cities effectively punish them for their success.
Are some New England spots simply too “post-gay” to be fairly reflected in the MEI?
“It’s incredibly wonderful for cities to say that they live in atmospheres like that. But that still doesn’t mean the work is done,” cautions Oakley. She says the MEI should draw attention to specific areas where even progressive New England can make more – well, progress. For instance, says Oakley, the report underlines the fact that some New England locales do not have the same anti-discriminations protections for gender identity as they do for sexual orientation. In Massachusetts, the Transgender Equal Rights Bill, enacted last year, did not include public accommodations protections; efforts are underway to address that issue at the state level, but in the meanwhile municipalities could enact local policies. “New England has been a real leader on LGB issues, and to some extent on transgender issues,” says Oakley. “But that’s one area where the region can still step up its game.”
The MEI report makes it difficult for New England to rest on its laurels. Even Provincetown received zero points for the MEI criteria, “Local Pro-equality Legislative or Policy Efforts.”
“It’s important to mention that we were looking at the last couple of years,” says Oakley about the MEI criteria. “There may have been great things happening ten years ago. But we were looking for what’s happening in cities right now, on the record, in favor of equality.”
Some say that’s a shame. “As I was reading the report, I would see a community receive bonus points for something that P’town did fifty years ago,” says Varmillion. “The intrinsic nature of a community doesn’t come out at all.”
And even if the MEI aims to capture quantifiable local laws and policies, Varmillion says it should have accounted for something familiar to any social scientist: a baseline.
“In Provincetown, gay is not exceptional — gay is standard,” says Varmillion. If only there were bonus points for that. [x]
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