The Athens-Clarke County Unified Government has made dramatic improvement in LGTBQ equality and inclusion over the past year but still has a long way to go according LGBTQ advocates.
A huge improvement
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGTBQ advocacy group in the US, gives the ACC government 68 points out of a possible 100 on their municipal equality index, which evaluates local governments on how well they embody LGBTQ+ inclusion in their laws, policies and services. While 68% may not sound like a great score, it’s actually a huge improvement. In 2020, Athens received only 29 points out of 100.
Two initiatives spearheaded by Mayor Kelly Girtz and progressive commissioners last year are responsible for much of the improvement in 2021. A proposed Human Relations Commission gained Athens five points on the index, and the passing of a comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance was responsible for a massive 30 point gain.
Girtz told APN that he was proud of the work that led to the higher score. He also believes that further changes on the way will “increase quality of life” and also help Athens score higher with the Human Rights Campaign.
…but more progress is needed
Despite these gains, a 68% score isn’t anything to write home about.
Cameron Harrelson, who serves on the board of directors for Athens Pride, told APN that he is “grateful to see Athens’ HRC municipal equality index on the rise.” However, Harrelson was quick to add that “the latest score is still a reminder of the work our government and our community still has to do in order to create a true equitable, safe city for members of our LGBTQ+ community.”
The category of law enforcement is where the ACC government lost the most points on the equality index. For example, the police department does not have an LGBTQ liaison and they also do not report anti-LGBTQ hate crime statistics to the FBI. This was responsible for a loss of 22 points in total.
The local government also lost points because they do not offer transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits.
Some of these issues, while being relatively simple to fix, would greatly improve Athens’ score. Allen Jones, a candidate for commission in district 7, has committed to making these changes and getting Athens’ score all the way up to 100% during his first term in office.
“There seems no good reason why we still don’t include trans-inclusive healthcare benefits for government employees,” Jones said. “Beyond that, there are simple things like committing to ensure that every ACC government building with single stall bathrooms uses gender inclusive signage.”
Jones also wants the city government to more directly serve Athens’ LGBTQ youth, homeless, elderly, HIV/AIDS positive and trans populations and wants to engage the public on these issues to ensure the city handles them correctly.
But listening to the feedback of LGBTQ advocates and residents isn’t just important for improving Athens’ score with the Human Rights Campaign. According to Jones, this is about “making Athens a more equitable and inclusive city overall.”
You may have heard that a rainbow crosswalk is being planned for Clayton Street and should be installed soon. Whether this symbol of solidarity with the LGBTQ community is viewed as an empty gesture or as a deep commitment to equity likely depends on the actions the mayor and commission will continue to take in coming years.