The index assesses each city on 44 different criteria, covering citywide nondiscrimination protections, policies for municipal employees, city services, law enforcement policies and the city’s relationship with the LGBTQ community.
While the state average score was 34 out of 100, Johnson City scored an 18 based on existing legal protections for members of the LGBTQ community.
Chris Sanders, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Tennessee Equality Project, said this is indicative of a number of deficiencies, some of which he believes are partly cultural. He recalled organizing against the Washington County Commission in 2016 when officials proposed an anti-marriage equality resolution.
The 12-11 vote narrowly failed to pass as the resolution needed 13 votes to pass.
“If it takes hundreds of people to stop a bad thing by one vote, you can imagine how hard it is to make a change,” Sanders said. “That gives you an idea of where the city is at.”
Sanders also cited some other areas of concern in Johnson City.
“Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis and Chattanooga all protect their city government employees based on orientation and gender identity. That does not exist in Johnson City,” he said.
But Johnson City Mayor David Tomita said he disagrees with the assessment that says the city isn’t LGBTQ-friendly. He said Johnson City is an inclusive community for all marginalized groups, noting that city officials and authorities have tolerated and reached out to groups like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights groups. He said progressive organizers and members of every community “feel safe here,” and the results of the assessment seem “subjective.”
“I would disagree,” Tomita said. “I think we treat everybody fairly in Johnson City.
“We can all do better at everything. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but I don’t think we’re in a bottom percentile.”
He said it was unfair for a national organization to judge the local community, and added that he believes it's up to the federal and state governments to provide legislation against LGBTQ discrimination.
He said it would be “redundant” for city governments to institute ordinances such as these, though there are no explicit federal or state laws that protect LGBTQ individuals from workplace discrimination.
“You can’t legislate what’s in people's hearts, and most protections for people come federally,” Tomita said. “I don’t want to jump in and sign a bunch of ordinances.”
As for making Johnson City an inclusive municipality, he said he believes “we’re there.”
Local LGBTQ activist John Baker said he was “not surprised” with Johnson City’s low score, nor was he surprised about Tomita’s attitude on the issue. He said local governments should be leading the charge in working to be more LGBTQ-friendly.
“This is where we live and where we need to have our protections. To me, local laws are most important in setting the trend,” Baker said. “I believe that we need to say on the city level that we are all welcome here. The idea that we could be discriminated against for any reason is un-American. At the local level, we need to stand up like we did against the Washington County commissioners.”
He said the idea that Johnson City is “fair to everybody” is “out of touch.”
“I don’t mean to ‘diss’ the mayor, he’s a nice guy,” Baker said. “I just think he is really misinformed about the level of equality in our city and city government.”
East Tennessee State University Women Studies Director Phyllis Thompson said there is more to be done on the local level. She said Johnson City should follow the lead of other cities in Tennessee and adopt ordinances that protect LGBTQ workers from discrimination.
“When people harbor negative attitudes toward LGBTQ folks, those attitudes translate into mistreatment,” she said. “As a community, we need to ask what protections we should provide to citizens that live here.”
In her experience studying and teaching about issues surrounding gender and sexuality, she said the research shows that a community lacking inclusivity is harmful to education, industry and health care; and added that lacking these ordinances against discrimination hurts Johnson City’s ability to attract LGBTQ scientists, educators, social workers and other professionals.
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