I’ve often heard Norfolk’s Mayor Kenny Alexander say that the current City Council is the most diverse in history. He bases his statement on the fact that the current Council consists of four men and four women. Four of them are African American, and the others are of varying Caucasian ethnicities and of ages.
The truth is that now Norfolk’s City Council is less diverse than it was two years ago. In my opinion, Norfolk’s City Council achieved that status in 2016 when I was appointed as a temporary councilperson. For a short time, I was their first and only LGBTQ and military veteran councilperson.
Diversity is achieved through representation of many minority categories, and my presence checked the box for two important groups. The fact remains that it’s vital to encourage our elected leaders to understand the concept true diversity and put into place municipal protections for all citizens at risk.
One of the ways we can do that is to work with our cities to create Human Rights Commissions. The general mission of a Human Rights Commission is to prevent and eliminate discrimination against all minority groups in the City.
Generally speaking, they are advisory bodies that work with businesses, community groups, and individuals to facilitate understanding of rights and responsibilities, advise City Council and the City Manager on human rights issues, and hold public hearings on specific complaints.
They can serve as a valuable conduit information from the public to the City Council, alerting Council to potential violations in areas as wide-tanging as hate crimes to housing discrimination.
As an example, the recent Norfolk City Council decision to purchase the property on which the Hershee Bar sits was based on a long-term vision for City redevelopment. However, I don’t think they realized how dismissive this action has been perceived by a large segment of the LGBTQ community.
If Norfolk had a Human Rights Commission, it would have been able to advise leaders on the sensitive nature of their decision and help them recognize the importance of such businesses to any claim of diversity. Instead, the City has offered the owners of the club very little in the way of support or assistance in relocating.
Norfolk is but one example of a Hampton Roads municipality without a Human Rights Commission. Out of the Seven Cities, only Virginia Beach and Newport News have established one. That impacts our cities in negative ways that far transcend local issues such as the closing of the Hershee Bar.
Each year, the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve LGBTQ equality, publishes a Municipal Equality Index (MEI). The study ranks major US cities based on non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement and the city leadership’s public position on equality.
With 100 being a perfect score, all of Hampton Roads’ municipalities, including Virginia Beach, score 54 or below. Most of these dismal scores are due to a lack of a Human Rights Commission (with the two exceptions noted above), non-discrimination statutes, elected LGBTQ City officials, and municipal services keyed to the LGBTQ community.
A Human Rights Commission is the first step towards addressing each of these issues. They are easy to form, require little financial commitment from the City, and pull lightly on City human resources.
So what are we waiting for? We can only do better when we know better.
Nicole Carry has been a local activist and progressive leader for over 20 years. She served as interim Norfolk City Councilperson in 2016 and ran for Norfolk School Board in 2018. She is veteran and a Board Trustee of the Virginia Veterans Services Foundation. She is a co-founder of Hampton Roads Business Outreach, the local LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce and a member of Hampton Roads Pride.