Wednesday, December 7, 2022

We Need to Work Locally to Protect Our Civil Rights

The 2019 legislative session in Richmond closed on a low note for LGBTQ Virginians.  Despite support from Governor Northam and the Virginia Senate, plus intensive lobbying by Equality Virginia, Virginia Beach for Fairness, and the Human Rights Campaign, two anti-discrimination bills died in the General Laws Committee last week after failing to move to the floor of House of Delegates. 

These two vital pieces of legislation promised housing and employment protections to LGBTQ citizens. However, the bills have been sabotaged by the House Republicans lead by Speaker Cox four times in as many years.

Until Cox is removed from office or Democrats take the majority in the House of Delegates, LGBTQ Virginians can expect similar frustrating legislative outcomes. While we should focus on sending progressive representatives to Richmond, we need to simultaneously work locally to protect our rights as our leaders in Richmond cannot get the job done.

In the absence of statewide protections, many communities throughout Virginia have boldly created and funded human and civil rights commissions. Primarily in Northern Virginia (and just last year in Richmond), these quasi-governmental commissions have enacted powerful local non-discrimination ordinances (NDAs) that protect the rights of all minority groups, provide means for citizens to lodge complaints, and serve as investigatory bodies. 

They are empowered to work with their cities to ensure the rights of all at-risk communities. Yet they are sadly missing from all but three of Hampton Roads’ municipalities. Most notable is the City of Norfolk, likely the largest city in the Commonwealth to not have a civil/human rights commission.

Virginia Beach’s Human Rights Commission consists of a panel of citizens that meets regularly to address citizen concerns, but has no legal authority to act. Instead, they refer cases to “the appropriate agency (at the local, state and/or national levels) that can address his/her claim.” Whether or not that agency is held accountable for following up the referral isn’t guaranteed.

Hampton boasts a Citizen’s Unity Commission, a 20-person city-funded agency that “focuses on promoting and sponsoring activities and events that bring citizens together.” However, again, the commission has no authority to document or investigate potential violations. 

Newport News also has a Human Rights commission, but their charter is broad with no apparent power other than to “protect citizens of the city against unfounded charges of unlawful discrimination.”

That leaves four of our seven cities which have no semblance of a Human Rights Commission, and all Hampton Roads cities fall far below the average in the annual Municipal Equality Index (MEI) issued annually by the Human Rights Campaign. 

OutWire757 has used the MEI report’s rankings of our cities numerous times in an attempt to show our leaders how far behind we lag behind other cities when it comes to protecting basic civil rights of all its citizens, not just those in the LGBTQ community. 

Some question the methodology of the Human Rights Campaign in determining these rankings. But the bottom line is, in lieu of a REAL civil/human rights commission that can give us a clearer grassroots understanding of where we stand, this is all we have to go on as a measure of our success or failure in ensuring equal rights for all. 

Real change and progress needs to be made in Hampton Roads—most acutely in Norfolk where segments of the LGBTQ community have felt ignored and outright disrespected over the past year.  

That change can only come from bold leadership at the top. It is not enough for leaders to show up at events, cut a ribbon, and have a photo taken. 

We need real change now. 

We encourage the mayors and leaders of our communities to look to those cities who have successfully implemented commissions and to seek guidance from the likes of Richmond’s Mayor Levar Stoney. Stoney was recently recognized as one of Equality Virginia’s Outstanding Virginians for his work to raise his City’s MIE score from a 42 to a 94 (in one year) by enacting local civil rights protections for his citizens. 

Some say local legislation is limited by the Dillon Rule, unnecessary because “we don’t have those problems,” impossible due to lack of funding, or just too difficult. 

If that’s our excuse, then we should look to the Great Plains town of Brookings, South Dakota, for inspiration (see video link). Over the course of several years, the citizens and leadership of Brookings raised their MEI score to a perfect 100. 

This means that, among many other programs and protections, they created a Human Rights Commission that works directly with the City’s LGBTQ liaison and has the authority to enforce the City’s non-discrimination ordinances. 

That sort of progressive leadership will make Hampton Roads a better place to live and work for everyone. Plus, let’s not forget that it will also create new outside investment and job creation.

All of Hampton Roads’ cities (especially Norfolk) have an opportunity to join Richmond, Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, and even Brookings, SD,  as a beacon for civil rights. The first step is to fund and empower civil/human rights commissions with enforcement ability and boldly confront the issues marginalized citizens in all of our cities face.

This won’t be easy, but it’s just common sense and the right thing to do.

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