Small Cities In Conservative America Are Standing Up for LGBTQ Rights

Written by Letitia Stein


When Mike Lujano and George Lenz hoisted a rainbow flag outside their business in a Victorian brownstone on Market Street two decades ago, they found that few neighbors in socially conservative Wheeling, West Virginia, knew it was a symbol of gay pride. The married owners of Edna's hair salon in this faded industrial city of 28,000 at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains never dreamed that one day they would be at a packed city council meeting, cheering the passage of an ordinance barring discrimination over sexual orientation and gender identity. Defying stereotypes in the U.S. culture wars over lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, Wheeling is among a recent wave of small cities, many in parts of the country that voted for Republican President Donald Trump, to embrace these protections. "We told people this wasn't a bad place," said Lujano, 53, who was in the audience when the ordinance passed in late December. "Finally, this confirmed it."

About 50 U.S. municipalities in 15 states have added LGBTQ nondiscrimination measures since 2015, when same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide. More than half of those cities and towns are located in counties that backed Trump in November's election, and all are in states he won. Local leaders say accepting diversity is not just the right thing to do, but needed to attract jobs and investment. They concede the measures alone may not land a Fortune 500 employer but argue the protections are necessary for smaller markets to appeal to many corporations with LGBTQ-friendly policies.

While the verdict remains out in Wheeling and other places with recently adopted protections, the cost of opposing LGBTQ advancement has run in the hundreds of millions of dollars in North Carolina. Last year the state lost major entertainment events and planned jobs expansions by PayPal and Deutsche Bank in the protests over a state law restricting bathroom access for transgender people.

In Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence's hometown of Columbus saw an all-Republican city council unanimously pass LGBTQ protections after he signed as governor a religion law in 2015 that was widely decried as discriminatory and prompted some conventions to go elsewhere. "Republicans don't speak with one voice on this issue," said Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop. "In a small town, you really do live with the laws that you create. It makes it all a little bit more real that we see some people - we actually know them - who might be affected."

Across the United States, 19 states have LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections that typically guard against being fired from jobs, kicked out of housing or denied services in places like restaurants or hotels. Reuters found that about four out of five cities with populations greater than 250,000 are covered with at least some protections. READ MORE


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