Madison is a national symbol of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender inclusivity, according to a recent report by the Human Rights Campaign. However, for LGBT activists in the city, there is still work to be done.
Among 38 cities in the country to earn a perfect score, Madison was ranked on a scale examining municipal laws and policies regarding the LGBT community, by the Washington-based organization.
The annual Municipal Equality Index also ranked Milwaukee highly, awarding Wisconsin’s largest city a 91 out of 100; putting the state’s two most populated regions well above the national average.
OutReach, South Central Wisconsin’s LGBT Community Center Director Steve Starkey said policies that have been in place since the 1980s and still promote inclusivity today are the reason for the grade. The index examines non-discrimination laws, relationship recognition, the municipality as an employer, services and programs for LGBT citizens, law enforcement and the overall relationship with the LGBT community.
“Overall, Madison is a real example to other cities about how to be inclusive and supportive of the LGBT community,” Starkey said.
The city scored highly in part by funding programs, like OutReach, that provide support to LGBT citizens, he added.
Madison’s inclusive employment policies, a human rights division of the city government that deals with LGBT issues, and legal recognition of civil unions and domestic partnerships, along with newly established marriage equality help to give the city a perfect score, he said. At the same time, Starkey said there are still areas in which Madison could improve.
Starkey said especially regarding the transgender community, which still experiences “a lot more discrimination and lack of acceptance, harassment, bullying, even physical violence, than gay and lesbian people do,” there is still work to be done promoting inclusivity and justice around the city. According to a study by the Movement Advancement Project, transgender people in the United States experience unemployment at twice the rate of the population as a whole.
“Transgender people are homeless at a much higher level, and experience unemployment at a much higher level than the general population and quite a bit higher than the lesbian and gay community,” Starkey said. “That’s something that the city could focus on.”
Starkey said a problem arises when transgender people who are homeless turn to shelters. In Madison, homeless shelters are divided into men’s and women’s; with Porchlight taking in men and the Salvation Army supporting women and families.
According to Starkey, transgender people are being turned away from both. OutReach has been working with Mayor Soglin and the human rights commission to find a solution, but as of now there has been no conclusive action taken.
Starkey said while LGBT youth services in Madison are strong, there are not enough resources to help homeless LGBT youth, who make up 25-50 percent of the homeless youth population. Adolescents who come out to their families are sometimes kicked out, and sudden homelessness for young people with no work experience can lead to drug abuse, alcoholism and prostitution, Starkey said.
Tim Michael, manager of Gay Straight Alliance Outreach for Wisconsin, said policies protecting students have come far, and in most schools sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classes. However, these policies don’t always pan out for students in classrooms and hallways.
“We also know that sometimes policies are in print but ignored, and although a policy may say one thing, people’s real, lived experiences say something very different,” Michael said. “We know that there are lots of students who experience harassment on a day-to-day basis.”
Jeanne Williams, president of PFLAG-Madison, said the policies protecting kids in schools are strong in the city of Madison, but can be improved in other parts of the state.
“I think it is true that we’re making progress, but until all schools have those policies, work needs to be done,” Williams said. “I think the major thing is making sure our schools are safe for everybody.”
Gabriel Javier, assistant dean of students and director of the LGBT campus center, said the city of Madison puts the campus in a context of inclusivity, and this helps the school recruit a talented and accepting faculty and staff. Javier said there are also plenty of growth areas, especially with regard to transgender related healthcare.
Javier said the Municipal Equality Index is a good start in understanding the LGBT community, but is not a full picture. “I think these types of indicators are really important and should inspire us to work harder to tell the complete story of LGBTQ people’s lives in Madison,” Javier said.