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When it comes to equality, Springfield has earned failing marks, according to the Human Rights Campaign – while Missouri’s other largest cities scored perfect 100s.
The Queen City’s score in HRC’s Municipal Equality Index for 2021 was 53, and one of the key factors was its lack of an anti-discrimination law to protect residents who identify as LGBTQ – HRC’s specific language includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, with an added plus sign representing gender and sexual identities not covered by the other letters.
In sharp contrast to Springfield, Missouri’s other largest cities, Kansas City (No. 1, with a population of 501,957), St. Louis (No. 2, with 319,336) and Columbia (No. 4, with 124,519), each received scores of 100.
Springfield is the state’s third-largest city with a population of 169,176.
The 2021 score card from the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group reflects improvement for Springfield, which notched a 47 in 2020.
In the category of law enforcement, the city earned perfect marks in 2021. The Springfield Police Department received full credit for having an LGBTQ police liaison or task force and for reporting hate crime statistics to the FBI.
In the highest point-value category of nondiscrimination laws, Springfield earned nothing, as no laws exist at the state, county or city level to protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The city earned 20 out of 28 points for its own performance as an employer, with 14 points for nondiscrimination on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity and another 6 points for offering transgender-inclusive health care benefits.
In the municipal services category, the city scored five points for having a Human Rights Commission. However, the report noted the commission did not have an enforcement mechanism; nor was there an LGBTQ liaison in the city executive’s office, though Springfield’s first diversity, equity and inclusion director, Taj Suleyman, was hired in May.
Four out of eight points were given for the leadership’s public position on LGBTQ equality and their pro-equality policy efforts and two flex points were awarded for the city providing supports for LGBTQ youth.
Future SOGI measure?
Springfield City Council passed an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in 2014, but voters repealed it in 2015.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling from June 2020 protects members of the LGBTQ community from employer discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. However, no laws protect LGBTQ people from being discriminated against in housing or public accommodations.
Councilperson Craig Hosmer, who also is a partner at Springfield law firm Hosmer King & Royce LLC, said council has talked about introducing a new SOGI ordinance in recent years with no action.
“We were really sort of waiting to see if the community advocates wanted to go through that fight again,” he said.
Justin Burnett was voted to the Springfield City Council on the day the SOGI ordinance was repealed by voters in 2015. At the time, his platform stressed his opposition to anti-discrimination measures for LGBTQ residents of the city.
But Burnett has changed. He is now the southwest Missouri regional organizer for Missouri Faith Voices, and through it, the former staunch social conservative now advocates for equality.
Burnett noted it would take a measure like the SOGI ordinance to raise Springfield’s score significantly.
“Without legislation, the next step our community has to take is enacting those protections,” Burnett said. “I’m fully supportive of reinstating the SOGI ordinance in Springfield. We have a moral responsibility to have those protections in place.”
Burnett said he thinks a SOGI ordinance would fare better today than it did in 2015.
“I do think we have progressed on this issue some,” he said. “A lot of people, as they’ve researched and learned from the stories of others, have begun to evolve on this issue.”
Burnett credits his own evolution on equality to his habit of listening to the stories of others.
“So often we speak without listening,” he said. “That is one of the challenges with our really divisive political environment right now is no one’s listening. If we listened – as a country, as a community – we could come together and make progress on these issues.”
Hosmer said he thinks the current council would have the votes for a SOGI measure, and this would give some teeth to anti-discrimination efforts.
“People start thinking of Springfield as not being a very inclusive or welcoming city,” he said. “I don’t think that’s true for most people or most businesses, but a few bad actors can create that perception.”
Hosmer noted it takes the city, and especially LGBTQ advocates, to go to bat for the issue if it ends up on a ballot.
“Maybe this grade card will be a little bit more instructive on what we should do,” Hosmer said. “Perception is just as damaging as reality. If people discriminate in this community, we should as a community be against that.”
Like Burnett, Hosmer said he believes the community would support a SOGI ordinance today.
“The vast majority of people in Springfield don’t want people to be discriminated against,” he said. “We may not all agree with each other on some things, but we should be a welcoming community. For businesses or companies that aren’t welcoming and inclusive, there should be consequences.”
At the city, Suleyman said he views the score card as a conversation starter that can inspire the community to grow.
Suleyman said the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights and Community Relations meets regularly and engages with the HRC score card. His own position having been created only seven months ago, Suleyman said the city is looking to improve its score while setting its sights on upholding human rights and dignity.
“The way I see the process is as an encouragement to re-evaluate the inclusivity of the city services and policies,” Suleyman said.
The city is pursuing further inclusiveness for LGBTQ people in three ways, according to Suleyman. These include increasing engagement and education about and for the LGBTQ people in the city, partnering with community stakeholders for further conversation about inclusivity and providing a positive work environment for city workers who identify as LGBTQ.
“The LGBTQ+ communities are parts of our community,” he said. “When we begin recognizing the humanity side, plus the uniqueness of life experiences, that is the greatest accomplishment that we can strive for as a community.”
Urban Studios LLC, a natural light photography studio and pop-up event space, opened; the Missouri State University Foundation became the new owner of event venue The Old Glass Place; and Polk County’s dining scene expanded with the opening of Flat Creek.