On Tuesday, the HRC released its annual Municipal Equality Index assessing LGBTQ rights in 506 cities across the country, including eight in Tennessee. The index assessed local policies and ordinances to gauge where each city stands in terms of LGBTQ inclusivity.
Johnson City scored a 12 compared to Tennessee’s average score of 35 out of 100 points. The city’s score marks a six-point drop since 2017, putting Johnson City 48 points below the national average of 60.
Xavier Persad, the author of the index, said much of the report focused on examining employment policies in Johnson City. In terms of LGBTQ worker protections in the public sector, he said Johnson City still “doesn’t get any credit in that section.”
“We’re looking at whether or not the city treats its workers with inclusive policies. So does the city have an equal employment opportunity policy expressly including sexual orientation and gender identity? Does the municipality offer its employees transgender-inclusive health care benefits?” he said. “Is there a policy in place saying the city will not contract with businesses that don’t have employment non-discrimination protections that expressly cover LGBTQ people for their own employees?”
Persad said ordinances and policies such as these, as well as non-discrimination housing ordinances, would improve Johnson City’s score.
“It’s important that city officials understand that in order to ensure the health, safety and well-being of residents, visitors and workers, these laws have to exist so that people have enforceable protections,” he said.
Persad said cities with low scores should also consider appointing police and government liaisons. LGBTQ-inclusive diversity training for employees is also a key area of concern for cities with low scores.
“It’s important for LGBTQ people to have representation in city government and in the police department to have a point of contact so that people in the community can express their LGBTQ-related concerns, have those dealt with appropriately and elevated to the appropriate representatives in government,” Persad said.
The Pride Community and Education Center of the Tri-Cities, which is now leasing a suite in the King Centre after years of fundraising, established itself mainly with the help of grassroots support by local LGBTQ activists and allies.
Despite organizing with virtually no official city support, Pride Center Director John Baker said his interactions with the Johnson City Police Department, in particular, have largely been “courteous and helpful.” He said Johnson City police are “better than most around this area.”
“I hope that continues, but as always, cooperation, support and inclusion is an ongoing process,” Baker said. “Expanding community outreach programs from the police department would be helpful.”
About a month ago, Mayor Jenny Brock said Steve Willis, director of the city’s Human Resources Department, and TriPride board member Chris Dagenhart held a joint teleconference with HRC staff to discuss the results of the index.
“The call was very educational and provided great insight into how other similarly sized cities across the country have improved their scores,” Willis said, adding that “Johnson City is committed to providing an environment of equal opportunity to all employees, applicants and the community at large.”
Brock said some city leaders “felt there were some things they were not giving us any credit for that we were doing” and believes the city has made more progress in recent years than the assessment reflects. In 2018, TriPride organized the city’s first LGBTQ pride festival with the support of the city government.
“Our commitment is to turn around this index and specifically and strategically begin to address these areas that we know we can do better in,” Brock said. “We’re not there yet, but there certainly is a commitment that we use the index as our roadmap on the things we can do.”
While there is still work to be done and “a lot of room to go up,” Dagenhart, a member of the Johnson City Planning Commission, said he also believes Johnson City should’ve received a higher score, considering the city’s support for last year’s pride parade and festival.
“It really should be higher because the city has some things that they’re doing that are more supportive of the LGBTQ community than what HRC knew about,” he said, adding that he believes the “intention and desire is there” among city leaders to implement non-discrimination ordinances.
Brock said the city has been discussing instituting a non-discrimination ordinance that specifically addresses LGBTQ city officials and employees in accordance with human resource recommendations.
“We have non-discrimination (policies) built into all of our ordinances,” she said. “Yet we don’t have that one that’s particularly done for this.”