Mayor Michael Nutter raises the rainbow flag at the 4th Annual City of Philadelphia LGBT History Month Celebration at City Hall. (Photo via City of Philadelphia)
When the City of Philadelphia passed a law that made it the largest city in the country to remove transgender exclusions to its healthcare coverage for city employees, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) took notice. The LGBT rights organization’s second annual Municipality Equality Index (MEI) ranked Philadelphia from the number two spot in 2012 to the number one spot this year, an honor shared with just one other city out of a total of 291 municipalities in the nation. With the help of the Equality Federation Institute, it’s the only rating system of its kind in the country to report on LGBT laws and policies.
“This groundbreaking report shows that cities and towns across the country, from Vicco, Kentucky, to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, are leading the charge in basic fairness for LGBT people,” HRC President Chad Griffin said. The long term goal of the MEI? To score as many cities as possible in this top spot.
Unlike other polls and ratings geared toward LGBT friendliness and even tourism, the MEI, admits Gloria Casarez, director of the Mayor’s Office for LGBT Affairs, is particularly significant for driving new business and setting the pace for other cities in the commonwealth (and ideally, the state – which currently lacks any LGBT protections) to move forward in regards to a range of LGBT issues. Interestingly, Philadelphia has had longstanding sexual orientation protections in place for 30-plus years. But these efforts have not always come easy, especially when you consider that the transgender legislation that finally passed this year was at least five years in the making.
“Last year, we were number two,” said Casarez, who has been instrumental in bending Mayor Michael Nutter’s ear when it comes to everything from partnership recognition and police relations to healthcare and tax incentives for the LGBT community. “We’ve had a steady list of things that we wanted to get done and improve upon.”
And while the average visitor (and even local) may not necessarily see the immediate outcomes of what this progressive push for equality truly means in Philadelphia, it sets a foundation for expectation. Meanwhile, more subtle things – like rainbow street signs in the Gayborhood– provide an underpinning for justice and equality throughout the city in a more visible way.
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Appealing to Progressive Businesses
Practically speaking, Philadelphia’s following in the footsteps of many Fortune 500 companies that have been particularly proactive in instituting LGBT protections on the corporate level. In hopes of seducing these companies into the city to grow business and attract new talent, the Mayor’s Office and City Council have realized that legislating in favor of LGBT equality on the city level simply adds up to good business. Employing more than 25 million people, almost 90 percent of these Fortune 500s prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the HRC.
“[LGBT equality] sets the tone for good practices all the way around,” Casarez said. “It’s a big part of business and recruitment. Fortune 500 companies have been far ahead of any municipality in addressing inclusion and addressing workplace inequality. These are the people we want to have in Philly, as well as the mom-and-pop shops.” These are also the policies that have inspired Philadelphia’s own legislation, policies that many of the city’s LGBT leaders and organizations hope to see flourish in Harrisburg.
A Model for the State
On the state level, Rep. Brian Sims, PA’s first openly gay legislator, has been working to establish LGBT protections where there are currently none. While the commonwealth’s neighbors, like New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, all have some version of same-sex marriage rights and employment protections on the books, Pennsylvania is lagging far behind. That’s why Sims is using Philadelphia’s blueprint – like the landmark LGBT equality bill, which includes tax credits for LGBT-friendly businesses, and mandated gender-neutral facilities in public buildings – to push for greater LGBT recognition statewide.
But how could Philadelphia’s progressive attitude about LGBT rights, along with HRC’s recent MEI ranking, really impact the state?
“Philadelphia is far ahead of the rest of the state in terms of equality protection, and many of my colleagues don’t realize how different it is to live in Philadelphia than other parts of the state,” says Sims. “Most people don’t realize that in Pennsylvania, you can still be fired for being LGBT, or denied treatment or services by a private company. The month DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) was declared unconstitutional, the momentum and timing was perfect to introduce a bill for marriage equality, and more recently, I introduced a bill that would ban conversion therapy and protect our LGBT youth.”
The state’s nonexistent protections have actually inspired greater protections in Philly itself. Not only has the city increased penalties around sexual orientation and gender discrimination because there has been no recourse on the state level, but it’s finding new ways to appeal to business and to attract new talent to boost economic initiatives through LGBT rights legislation, something Sims would like to see happen on the state level.
Sims is optimistic that Philly’s recent success can inspire more equitable legislation outside the city limits, especially since more legislators than ever have joined Pennsylvania’s LGBT caucus and more members of the Republican majority in the State House of Representatives are readying to be allies for the LGBT community.
“As I’ve said before during a press conference at LOVE Park when we introduced marriage equality,” Sims said. “It’s not a matter of if we will have full statewide LGBT equality, but a matter of when.”-30-
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