Columbia earns perfect score for city's LGBTQ laws and policies

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COLUMBIA - The city of Columbia earned a perfect score and an all-star rating for the second year in a row for the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index.

The Human Rights Campaign is the country's largest LGBTQ civil rights organization. The MEI is a yearly, nationwide evaluation of city law and services. It rates cities on non-discrimination laws, the city as an employer, city services, law enforcement and leadership on LGTBQ equality,

"We understand that discrimination of any kind is unacceptable, so we want to make sure that people are protected here," said the city's public communications specialist Sara Humm. "I think the city of Columbia, Missouri is really making strides to really make sure everybody in our community really feels welcome even if that's not something that's happening everywhere in the country."

Columbia was one of 78 cities that earned a perfect score and one of 46 cities that earned an all-star rating, of 506 total cities scored. The all-star rating refers to cities that scored above 85 points despite being in states with no state-level protection for the LGBTQ community.

"To this date, Missouri is one of a handful of states that do not have statewide protections for LGTBQ peers, and I was not content to wait for Jeff City or the federal government to guarantee these rights," said Mayor Brian Treece. "I'm very proud of the steps Columbia has taken over the past two years to make sure that we are a city that welcomes everyone."

Columbia has made considerable improvements in just the past few years. In 2015, the city received a score of 74. In 2016, it was 92, and has been 100 the past two years. Treece, who took office in 2016, said he made inclusivity a priority.

"When I ran for mayor three years ago, it was with a goal of making Columbia one of the most open, honest and transparent governments in the state," he said. "Having LGBTQ inclusive laws helped attract the best residents, employees and businesses that want to relocate to Columbia."

Treece said the Human Rights Campaign has provided a roadmap for new city efforts. In addition to having laws for fair employment and housing, Columbia also created LGBTQ liaisons in the city manager's office and police department, and appointment members of the LGBTQ community to boards and commissions.

"It's very important to me to make sure that we have a democracy that works for everybody and to make sure the policies that we are adopting take into consideration everybody's needs," Treece said.

St. Louis was the only other city in Missouri to get a perfect score, of the 8 cities scored. Jefferson City got a 20, Springfield got a 19, and Cape Girardeau got a 0.

Dion Wisniewski sees issues with the scores in other cities. He's the director of The Center Project, a community center for mid-Missourians aiming to provide education, resources and general support to the LGBTQ and ally community.

"I think overall it's just disheartening to see cities like Springfield, Cape Girardeau, some of the larger cities in the state that don't have great scores," Wisniewski said. "Especially in 2018, it's really time for these commissions or these city councils to take the time to write policies that are inclusive for all of their members."

Wisniewski said The Center Project mainly does work in Columbia, but aims to reach all across Boone County. He sees the differences in Columbia and Jefferson City.

"I do think that Columbia is definitely more progressive than Jefferson City, and it's somewhat frustrating to see a city that's so close have a score that's so drastically different than Columbia," he said.

Jefferson City is making changes, though. The city's score was 0 last year, so it's up 20 points.

Wisniewski said while more work can be done in Columbia, he hopes the community and city can use this momentum to challenge state laws.

"I think we can use that energy or city council can use that energy to put pressure on our local legislatures that represent us at the state level to really start pushing through these policies to make Missouri welcoming in general, because overall it's really not," he said.

Treece, the city council, the city's Human Rights Commission and city staff continuously work together toward the goal of building an inclusive community. Andrea Waner, the Human Rights Commission Chair, believes the city always has more work to do.

"As long as there's oppression in place, there's something that we need to be doing about it," she said. "I'm really proud to live in Columbia and I'm really proud of the work we've done thus far. But, I'm completely acknowledging the fact that there's still a lot of work to be done."

Humm said Columbia is a melting pot of people, from college students to retirees. The city will continue its efforts to make it a safe place where community members are embraced.

"It's more than just us saying that anyone is welcome here, because just because we say that people are welcome doesn't mean they feel welcomed. So that's really our goal, is to make sure we are making policies and making laws that protect people and are making people feel they are a part of our community."

For more information about the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index, visit its website.