Norman ranks most inclusive city in the state

Cody Giles / The Transcript

Members representing MSCI walk down Main Street on April 5 carrying a gay pride flag and balloons spelling out the word "love" during this year's annual Norman Pride Parade.

NORMAN — Norman is the most inclusive city for Oklahoma's LGBTQ community, according to a national group's annual ranking.

The municipalities were assessed by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which used its Municipal Equality Index to tally its scores.

The city scored a 92 and the average score for cities in Oklahoma was 32 out of 100 points, which falls below the national average of 60, according to information released from the foundation. The Municipal Equality Index is the largest and only nationwide assessment of LGBTQ inclusion in municipal law and policy, which assesses LGBTQ equality in 506 cities across the nation, including eight in Oklahoma.

"We are so excited to see Norman making such amazing progress over the course of just a year when we know that so many of the policies they've adopted over the last year were many years in the making," Allie Shinn, Freedom Oklahoma executive director, said. "Seeing them leap forward with their treatment of the LGBTQ residents of the city in such a short amount of time is really amazing and we are so thrilled to see this has happened."

At Freedom Oklahoma, Shinn said, they know that LGBTQ people experience "rampant" discrimination in 2019, and having the Norman government support its residents has been "incredibly" impactful for the people who call Norman home.

The assessment for scores include individual scores for non-discrimination laws, municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement and leadership of LGBTQ equality.

Tyler Sellers, Norman resident, said the city's score shows the progress it has made in the last decade. He said passage of the current LGBTQ protections through the civil rights ordinance amendments impacted this score.

"I think it will certainly make Norman a more inclusive community than it touts to be, and will certainly help the LGBTQ community seeking a home in Norman, or students going to the university, feel probably more comfortable and a little safer in our community," Sellers said.

The council modernized the Civil Rights Ordinance Aug. 27, passing amendments that added further protections for the LGBTQ community. The amendments to the ordinance cover areas such as private employment, housing and public accommodations.

The ordinance hadn't been changed since 1996, but the amendments were added after years of revisions and multiple efforts made by organizations, LGBTQ advocates, the Norman Human Rights Commission and other individuals throughout the community.

Some of the amendments included adding "sexual orientation," "gender identity or expression," and "marital status, including marriage to a person of the same sex" as specifically enumerated protected classes; clarification of Human Rights Commission's role; streamlining of HRC complaint and complaint resolution process; and simplification of substantive protections and additional definitions for sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and changing the age definition to 40 years or older.

Additional LGBTQ protections include declaration of policy and objectives, prohibition of discrimination and retaliation and simplification of substantive protections. The amendments stem from a resolution that added protections and was spearheaded by Norman United and other LGBTQ advocates, which had been pending revisions since 2015.

Don Holladay, former local attorney and current adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma, is delighted with Norman's score. Holladay was among several people who worked on the ordinance's initial draft.

"It's just a win-win when you score high on the Municipal Equality Index, because that's the place that future employers look that want to bring companies to Oklahoma. It's the most respected index there is in the nation," Holladay said.

The score is good for the community, he said, and reflects the preamble of the amended non-discrimination ordinance that this is a matter of local concern. The intent of the ordinance is to give every resident the opportunity to reach their full potential as a human being, Holladay said.

"The hope is that Norman now has a model ordinance that can be followed and considered, and hopefully become the type of ordinance that other cities in the state would use to put in place of their own," Holladay said.

He said several people were a catalyst for the ordinance, which began with the local LGBTQ groups that initiated the resolution, he said.

Tom Kovach, former council member and Norman United member, said he's happy to hear about Norman's score. Kovach was sworn in as the Ward 2 council member in 2008 and was the first openly gay council member to serve in the city.

"Even though its 2019 and a lot of progress has been made, people still sometimes feel like they are on the margins and that they are disenfranchised," Kovach said. "So when they see that their community is being recognized in a fashion like this it really sends a strong signal to them that they are important and they are welcome."

When a person has a majority viewpoint, a lot of things are taken for granted and are often chalked up to, "that's the way things are," he said. In many instances, people in the majority don't realize that people who are in the minority feel differently and are treated differently.

"When we go out of our way to make sure that they understand we don't want them to feel differently and we want them to be treated equally, that's an important thing for them and the health of the community," Kovach said.

There's little hope that the state legislature would pass this type of non-discrimination ordinance, he said. The ordinance mirrors the Federal Equality Act, he said, which provides protections for the LGBTQ community and has passed the U.S. House of Representatives, but has not been given a hearing by the Senate.

The ordinance was a big part of the score, but Mayor Breea Clark said other efforts such as the implementation of liaisons in Norman's police department and executive office, which addresses discrimination or other LGBTQ related issues, are worth noting. After the council passed the ordinance amendments, Clark was the 350th mayor to sign onto Mayors Against LGBTQ Discrimination. Oklahoma was the final state in the nation to join the group, she said.

"We are Oklahomans, we are proud to be Oklahomans, but I think there are some very negative stereotypes about Oklahomans around the nation, and I think having these kinds of ordinances and this kind of recognition help show the rest of the nation that we are not the stereotype," Clark said. "Norman is a wonderful place to live, an inclusive place to live and one that protects all of its residents, including those in the LGBTQ community."

The score is exciting for Clark, and she said it's been a goal of her's since she's been on the council to raise the Municipal Equality Index. Clark said she's always believed that inclusivity is a social justice and economic issue, which benefits Norman in several ways.

"I think it shows that they are valued and wanted here in Norman, but also protected," Clark said in reference to the score and its significance to the LGBTQ community. "An inclusive community means inclusive to everyone, and I'm glad to have codified the protections."

On the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's website Norman is among the key findings from the 2019 Municipal Equality Index. The official breakdown of all of the scoring can be found at www.hrc.org/mei.

Katie Standlee

366-3544

Follow me @katiestandlee

kstandlee@normantranscript.com

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