NEWPORT — While community organizations and leaders have made great strides in providing more resources to support the city's LGBTQ community, Newport itself has stagnated, with little work done in establishing LGBTQ-specific policies and protections on the municipal level, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Municipal Equality Index.
“There’s still a lot to be desired,” said Rex Lebeau, strategy specialist for the Newport Health Equity Zone. “There’s just certain things that are highlighted in this score that Newport could really use.”
The Human Rights Campaign releases an annual report that evaluates U.S. cities based on their LGBTQ-based policies and protections. Although the scoring criteria has changed over the decade since the Municipality Equality Index was established, Newport has scored below the national, regional and statewide averages every year since 2018.
This year, the city scored a 62 out of 100, which is two points greater than its score from the previous year, but those two points were awarded thanks to a statewide law passed in July requiring public buildings to make their single-use restrooms available to persons of any gender by 2022.
The two points were also extra points, or “flex points,” to Newport’s score and are designed to balance the scores so they are comparable between states with varying statewide protections.
Newport’s regular score, not counting its flex points, has remained steady at 55 for the past four years.
Of the city’s 55 points, 28 were awarded thanks to Rhode Island’s non-discrimination laws regarding employment, housing and public accommodations; 12 were given because of Newport’s participation in the FBI’s Hate Crime reporting program; 14 were awarded to benefits and protections the city offers to its municipal employees, and 1 point was awarded for the city leadership’s pro-equality policy efforts.
Sean O’Connor, co-founder of Newort’s main LGBTQ community organization, NewportOUT, said the stagnating score offers insight into Newport’s gaps in LGBTQ resources. In comparing the score to cities like Providence, which has received a 100 every year, O’Connor said Newport can see how it can establish certain resources it missed points on.
“I want to find out, 'OK, Providence scored 100. What do trans-inclusive healthcare benefits look like in their municipal human resources systems?'” O’Connor said. “That could be a gap in our municipal-level employment that’s gone under the radar. Maybe it has or hasn’t affected anyone directly yet, but it’s definitely something that’s important to get ahead of so that when the time comes, we can make sure that sort of thing is in place.”
This year, there were 21 available flex points in addition to the 100 regular points a city could earn. Just three of the seven flex points Newport earned were not based on state action and were awarded because city employees can receive benefits for domestic partners and because there is at least one openly LGBTQ leader, City Council member Angela McCalla.
As an advocate, and a nonbinary person, Lebeau keeps an eye on Newport’s MEI score year after year to see where the city lags in LGBTQ resources. While some aspects of the score aren’t as relevant to Newport’s needs, such as establishing an LGBTQ liaison in the City Executive office, Lebeau said there are certain resources the city could use, such as a Human Rights Commission.
“I think we’ve seen a lot come up in the past few years, especially racially, that have to do with Human Rights,” Lebeau said. “LGBTQIA equity is another aspect of that, but there really isn’t a deep commitment in Newport to social justice and human rights.”
Since the score focuses mainly on what the city’s government has done for the LGBTQ community, Lebeau and O’Connor said it doesn’t take into account the work local organizations have accomplished in the past few years.
As an example, Lebeau pointed to the recently established Gay-Straight Alliances at Thompson Middle School, Rogers High School, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center as Newport-based services for LGBTQ youth, criteria for two flex points the city did not receive.
Similarly, Lebeau and O’Connor said one of the most important issues for Newport’s LGBTQ community is access to inclusive and affirming healthcare, which is mainly being tackled by local organizations.
The two are members of the Newport Health Equity Zone’s LGBTQ Health working group, which formed last year to address LGBTQ healthcare accessibility and helped establish two Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island LGBTQ Safe Zones in the city, one at the Women’s Resource Center and another at Newport Mental Health. This designation certifies both organizations provide inclusive treatment and services, and was one of the group’s founding goals.
Now, O’Connor said the group is working on a similar certification program for Newport-area businesses and organizations.
“It gives a lot more realness to this idea of creating a welcoming space or organization,” O’Connor said.
The HEZ has also worked with AIDS Project RI to offer free HIV and Hepatitis C testing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, which is another prevalent healthcare concern for the LGBTQ community.
“That is stuff that’s happening at the municipal level, but those sorts of activities don’t get captured in the HRC Municipal Equality Index scorecard because it’s a very specific list of criteria,” O’Connor said. “I don’t want to downplay it though. If you look at items like transgender-inclusive health benefits, for me, that’s really interesting, and it's also a question mark (for the city).”
This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: Newport RI score on Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index