Saturday, December 5, 2020

West Palm Beach Again Earns Top Score in LGBTQ Equality

December 5, 2020

The City of West Palm Beach has again earned a perfect score on Human Rights Campaign Foundation Municipal Equality Index (MEI) ranking of cities across the United States. Nationally, 94 cities earned perfect scores.

The MEI examines how inclusive municipal laws, policies and services are of the LGBTQ people who live and work there. Cities are rated based on non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement, and city leadership's public position on equality. The 2020 MEI is the ninth annual edition and rates more than 506 cities on 49 different criteria from every state in the nation.
"The perfect score demonstrates the clear-cut commitment elected officials in West Palm Beach have made to the LGBTQ community over the past 30 years," said retired judge Rand Hoch, President and Founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC).

The Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC) is Florida's oldest, independent, non-partisan, political organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. PBCHRC promotes equality through education, advocacy, direct action, impact litigation, and community outreach. 

Since 1998, PBCHRC has been responsible for the enactment of more than 150 laws and policies providing equal protection, rights and benefits for Palm Beach County's LGBTQ community. 
“A top score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index is an extraordinary acknowledgement of the inclusiveness of City of West Palm Beach laws, policies, and services,” said West Palm Beach Mayor Keith A. James. “Our city a great place in which for LGBTQ people to live and visit. I thank the Human Rights Campaign for this recognition, as well as the many people in our city who have helped make it possible.”

Of the 20 Florida municipalities participating in the MEI, only 7 (West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Wilton Manors) scored 100 points. 

Thanks to the city's leaders, West Palm Beach has long been in the forefront of LGBTQ equality in the State of Florida

In 1990, city commissioners established the West Palm Beach Employment Practices Review Commission to recommend improvements to the city's personnel practices and procedures. The blue ribbon panel's final report included recommendations to improve the work environment for the city's lesbian and gay employees. Within months, those recommendations were unanimously adopted by the city commission. 

The following year, West Palm Beach became the first public employer in Florida to enact an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public employment. In 1992, West Palm Beach became the first public employer in Florida to provide domestic partnership benefits for municipal employees

City leaders recognized that while the laws and policies had been put into place to help gay and lesbian municipal employees, action also needed to be taken to address discrimination faced by the city's lesbian and gay residents. Therefore, in 1991, the City Commission voted to prohibit the use of any public facilities or any public funding to any entities which had discriminated against members of a variety of protected classes - including gays and lesbians. 

In 1994, the city commission enacted the West Palm Beach Equal Opportunity Ordinance, which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in private and public employment, housing and public accommodation. (The ordinance was amended in 2007 to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression.) 

Weeks after the ordinance was enacted, the local Christian Coalition collected enough signatures to hold a special election to repeal the ordinance. However, then-Mayor Nancy Graham stepped forward to lead the "'No on 1!" campaign to ensure that the newly enacted gay rights law remained on the books.

After a bitter and divisive campaign, West Palm Beach voters soundly defeated the repeal effort 56% to 44%. This historic effort marked the first time that Florida voters defeated an anti-gay referendum.

Since marriage equality was slow in coming to Florida, during the period when same-sex marriage was prohibited, elected offricials in West Palm Beach repeatedly championed laws and policies to ensure that gay and lesbian municipal employees with domestic partners received the same benefits and take home pay as married opposite employees were entitled to receive.

Even when faced with federal laws that denied workers with domestic partners benefits granted to married employees, city officials found their way to provide them for city employees. The City Commission extended equal health insurance continuation coverage (COBRA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits to city employees with domestic partners. They also provided federal tax equity reimbursements for employees insuring their domestic partners, since married employees were exempt from that taxation under federal law.

In 2015, the city commissioners updated the Equal Opportunity Ordinance by expanding the definition of "public accommodations" to prohibit consumer discrimination (e.g., "shopping while black"). The law also prohibits businesses in the wedding industry from discriminating against lesbian and gay couples. 

In 2016, City Commissioners also enacted the West Palm Beach Equal Benefits Ordinance, which required contractors doing business with the city to provide identical benefits to both married employees and employees with domestic partners.
Later that year, the City updated its health care plans to include trans care benefits to municipal employees.

Before year's end, West Palm Beach became the first city in Palm Beach County to prohibit the discredited practice of conversion therapy for minors.  Conversion therapy encompasses a range of discredited counseling practices by which health care providers or counselors seek to change a person's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression through aversion treatment.   

In 2018, West Palm Beach adopted an LGBTQ-inclusive resolution affirming its commitment to address and eliminate bullying at city facilities and in city programs. 

Earlier this year, to address the concerns of transgender and gender-nonconforming residents, Mayor Keith James directed city staff to install new signage by year's end designating all single-stall restrooms in municipal buildings as "all-gender"
When presented with opportunities to amend the state's civil rights laws to protect LGBTQ people, Florida Legislators have repeatedly refused to do so. In contrast, 22 states (and the District of Columbia) protect their residents from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. Nineteen of these states (and the District of Columbia) also provide similar protections on the basis of their gender identity. 

"Since the Florida Legislature has repeatedly refused to enact LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights laws, it is imperative that municipal and county leaders throughout our state work diligently to enact local laws and policies providing LGBTQ Floridians with equal protections and benefits," said Hoch. "All LGBTQ Floridians, regardless of where they live or work, should be protected from discrimination and harassment."

To view the 2020 MEI Scorecard for West Palm Beach, click here.

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