BOWLING GREEN, Kentucky — Chris Hartman hunched over his laptop keyboard in the corner of a campus classroom late one evening this fall, pondering an unfamiliar but welcome dilemma: Kentucky’s LGBTQ rights groups, including the one he leads, were making too much progress for him to be everywhere he needed to be at once.
In the Western Kentucky University classroom around Hartman, local activists were making final plans for Bowling Green’s upcoming Pride parade, the third in the city’s history. As he tried to help them decide on the color of the event’s commemorative T-shirt, Hartman’s attention drifted across the state to Georgetown, where the city council was considering final passage of a fairness ordinance — the name, in Kentucky, for local laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
It’s been a hectic year for Hartman, the executive director of the Fairness Campaign, which pushes for advancing LGBTQ rights across Kentucky. When the Georgetown council passed its fairness ordinance that evening, it became the 13th Kentucky city to approve such a law, and the third to do so this year. Three other cities have followed since, with each new ordinance seeming to inspire new organizing efforts in nearby towns that don’t have their own protections yet.
“It was a banner year,” Hartman said. “Our goal has always been to let folks know we could do it anywhere, and folks have started doing it.”
That LGBTQ rights are expanding in Kentucky may seem surprising, given that it has been just four years since Kim Davis, the clerk of rural Rowan County in the state’s Appalachian foothills, refused to sign marriage licenses for gay couples there.
But it is indicative of broader progress across the country, particularly in so-called red states, where activists have won similar gains on the local level in recent years and continued those efforts in 2019.
Five Georgia cities have passed nondiscrimination laws since November 2018. Nine more have done so in Kansas ― where a new Democratic governor also reinstated protections for LGBTQ state workers ― according to the Movement Advancement Project, a Washington-based LGBTQ rights organization.
Efforts in those states have focused in and around major metro areas like Wichita and Atlanta. In West Virginia and Florida, which like Kentucky have seen a spate of new fairness laws approved over the last five years, the year’s advances occurred in smaller, more traditionally conservative towns: West Virginia activists won a nondiscrimination law in the deep-red city of Beckley; in Florida, Fernandina Beach, a small town outside Jacksonville, approved its own law in July.
For years, LGBTQ activists in states like these have focused primarily on playing defense against legislation, lawmakers and organized opposition seeking to curtail their rights. But their organizing efforts have turned increasingly proactive ― and even in some of the most conservative corners of the country’s most conservative states, they have begun to score the kinds of victories they hope will only speed up progress in the near future.
“We sort of defy the stereotype that these LGBT nondiscrimination laws can only take place in the big blue states, and in big blue cities,” said Andrew Schneider, the executive director of Fairness WV, West Virginia’s most prominent LGBTQ rights group.
Local Solutions To A National Problem
Nondiscrimination laws of the sort that protect people on the basis of race and gender have been a priority for LGBTQ groups for decades. But in the absence of federal law, which Congress has yet to expand, local ordinances have become an important focus for the LGBTQ movement.
They also fill gaps in a majority of states, just 20 of which (along with Washington, D.C.) have comprehensive laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. In two others — Pennsylvania and Michigan — courts have expanded existing laws to cover LGBTQ people, and Wisconsin’s law protects people on the basis of sexual orientation but not gender identity. Utah, meanwhile, protects LGBTQ people from housing and employment discrimination.
“Congress has not done its job in putting these protections in place, and many state lawmakers have not done their jobs, either,” said Kasey Suffredini, the CEO and campaign director at Freedom for All Americans, a national LGBTQ rights group. “And so it’s falling on these local city councils and local mayors to do what they can to at least protect the citizens that are within their jurisdiction.”
The push for local ordinances has been difficult. The Fairness Campaign launched in Kentucky in the early 1990s but didn’t win its first local nondiscrimination ordinance until Louisville’s city council passed one in 1999. Lexington, the state’s second largest city, followed just months later, and Covington, a Cincinnati suburb, joined in 2003. It took a decade to win the next one, but since 2013, 13 cities have passed fairness ordinances, and the six that did so in 2019 were the most in a single year.
“We rely so much more on luck than anything,” Hartman said. “A lot of it is, where do you have the right confluence of strong grassroots support and supportive elected officials to get it done.”
The momentum has coincided with Kentucky’s increasing turn toward the GOP, which won full control of the state legislature in 2016 for the first time in a century. But that’s a nationwide trend: Between 2015 and 2017, more than 50 cities across the country passed similar LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances ― the majority of them, Reuters reported, were located in counties President Donald Trump won in 2016.
The recent progress, though, has started to expose the limits of the gains that can be achieved through local ordinances.
If we are successful in getting a statewide law, that will provide a road map for other rural red states to be able to do this as well. Andrew Schneider, Fairness WV
In a largely rural state like Kentucky, each new local law does little to expand the overall proportion of the state’s population covered by such protections. About 29% of Kentuckians are currently protected, according to the Movement Advancement Project, but that number has barely changed over the last five years.
Twelve West Virginia cities, including Charleston, now have nondiscrimination ordinances, but they cover just 11% of the state’s 1.8 million people.
Nearly 60% of Florida’s population is protected, but as in Kentucky and West Virginia, its largest metropolitan areas are all covered, and dramatically expanding coverage requires winning numerous battles to cover a few thousand people at a time.
“It is a painstaking and time-consuming effort,” Schneider, of Fairness West Virginia, said.
Local ordinances also don’t address the disparities that leave LGBTQ people vulnerable as they travel across or move within a state that does not have its own law.
But beyond the protections they extend to LGBTQ communities, those ordinances are also helping strengthen the push for statewide laws, which activists in Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia all think they are closer than ever to winning.
“We’ve seen in Florida that passing local protections creates upward pressure,” said Jon Harris Maurer, the public policy director for Equality Florida. “Cities take the first step, and that brings the county along. Our hope is that all those local policies help us build support at the state level, and show those representatives and senators where their voters are.”
Where the local laws are passing has helped make those arguments. The Fairness Campaign’s most recent victories have come in Georgetown and northern Kentucky, areas long represented by Republicans. And Fairness WV’s victory in Beckley, which passed a nondiscrimination law in June, sent a message “that if this can happen there, this can happen anywhere,” Schneider said. “And that put more momentum into our effort to get a statewide law.”
There are signs of shifting support in state legislatures: Pressure from activist groups has helped block anti-LGBTQ laws from passing in Kentucky, West Virginia and Florida, which has approved just one major bill Equality Florida opposed since the organization launched more than 20 years ago, Maurer said.
A younger generation of more LGBTQ-friendly Republican state lawmakers has helped stop the worst of those bills, and now, activists are working to persuade the GOP, which holds majorities in all three state legislatures, to push through nondiscrimination legislation — proposed versions of which have Republican co-sponsors in all three states.
A West Virginia Breakthrough?
The challenge is getting those bills to a vote. The Florida Competitive Workforce Act, as the state’s nondiscrimination legislation is known, has received just one hearing since it was first introduced more than a decade ago. In Kentucky, GOP leaders in the state Senate likely won’t bring a bill to a vote, even if it might, Hartman suggested, have enough support from Republicans and the Democratic minority to pass.
West Virginia may be closest to a breakthrough. Republican state Senate President Mitch Carmichael signed on to the state’s fairness legislation this year, and said this month that he wanted to “bring everyone along” in trying to pass the bill.
“If we are successful in getting a statewide law, that will provide a road map for other rural red states to be able to do this as well,” Schneider said. “This is not going to be just great for West Virginia.”
National groups, meanwhile, see state laws as a pressure point that could help them finally achieve federal protections from Congress, where House Democrats this year passed sweeping nondiscrimination legislation that will likely go nowhere in the Senate. That legislation has become an even more urgent priority for LGBTQ groups now, as the Supreme Court considers a slate of cases that could dramatically curtail the protections that do exist in rulings that will come no later than next summer. And the court isn’t the only challenge: Even in areas that seem on the brink of a breakthrough, LGBTQ activists stressed the need to protect the gains they’ve won from incursions from above: In Florida, for instance, conservatives have continued their efforts to pass state laws that preempt the local ordinances.
But while they wait on Congress, state legislatures and the Supreme Court, organizers anticipate that the local momentum from recent years will continue into 2020. In December, another fairness ordinance won preliminary approval in Woodford County, Kentucky, which could become the first rural area in the state to offer countywide protections to LGBTQ people when a final vote takes place in January.
“I expect it will pass easily,” Hartman said.
Correction: The reference to Fairness for All Americans has been corrected to Freedom for All Americans.