Study by Human Rights Campaign grades five local cities on policies and programs.

November 21, 2013

When it comes to promoting acceptance and equality in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, some Orange County cities could do better, according to a study by the Human Rights Campaign.

LGBT RankingsOverall, the study showed a positive trend nationwide toward better acceptance of LGBT people, organizers said. Orange County ranked above the national average, with Huntington Beach serving as the bright spot and Santa Ana falling below the national average. The results, released this week, appeared in the group’s Municipal Equality Index, which rates how well 291 cities in the United States include members of the LGBT community.

Huntington Beach has various programs, including a task force and anti-bullying measures, that put an emphasis on diversity and equality, said Councilman Joe Shaw, the only openly gay City Council member in Orange County. “We’ve always thought it was very important,” he said. “I’m very proud of that legacy.”

Rankings are based on a score of 100 and evaluate a city’s discrimination laws, programs for LGBT residents, whether a city holds pro-equality legislative or policy efforts, and how law enforcement handles and reports crimes against LGBT people, among other criteria. Huntington Beach was awarded a 76. Anaheim and Garden Grove earned a 63. Irvine scored a 54 and Santa Ana a 52. The national average is 56 points, and the average in California is 76.

The survey did not take into account any nonprofits or advocacy groups operating in the cities, which some city leaders said would have boosted their scores.

“Part of our philosophy and our approach is to be a partner and support the efforts already taking place by members of the community instead of trying to double what others are already doing,” said Santa Ana Councilman David Benavides.

The Human Rights Campaign first conducted this study last year, but no Orange County cities were included.

John O’Connor, executive director of Equality California, said that while Orange County enforces legal protections for the LGBT community, proactive efforts such as adding city programs and services could be stronger.

“All of these things are reasonable, and all of these things are positive for equality,” he said. “We’re recovering from decades and decades of discrimination, and it will take a long time for society to continue to evolve and transform and be more inclusive.”

How cities stack up in Orange County
The five Orange County cities evaluated were commended for non-discriminatory employment practices and awarded points for the state’s anti-bullying and same-sex marriage laws.

“Most issues relating to LGBT issues are not city issues; they’re state and federal issues like gay marriage and, before that, equal benefits,” said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission. “You think of housing, education and employment as those core areas of discrimination.”

But cities can be leaders in terms of programs and advocacy to push for equality.

“In a city-by-city determination, it’s easy for me to see why Huntington Beach would shine,” Kennedy said. “I think it does stand over and above any city in Orange County when you look at that particular community.”

Huntington Beach was the only city to earn points for programs that promote a relationship with the LGBT community, according to the survey.

“I’m really proud of the city I live,” Shaw said. “We’re making great strides.”

The city’s equality-based programs have made Huntington Beach a leader in promoting acceptance of many groups, including the LGBT community, he said.

“Huntington Beach has a lot of programs, and that’s what made a difference in our score,” he said. “It showed that we are far ahead, but I think Irvine and Santa Ana are really close behind.”

Benavides said he expected his city, which is home to the OC Pride event annually and several pro-LGBT organizations, to perform well on the survey.

“I am surprised that we didn’t do as well as I feel we should have been scored,” he said. “There are a number of different organizations that exist in Santa Ana or have relocated here because of the LGBT-friendly stance of elected officials within the city.”

Improvements sought throughout county

Countywide, there are still many challenges the LGBT community faces, including bullying, the social acceptance of marriage equality and the protection of transgender students, which is in the political forefront, Kennedy said.

But overall, Kennedy said he’s seen a significant push toward acceptance.

“Today, attitudes have just completely flipped,” he said. “I think we’ve come a long way in learning that such discrimination is totally inappropriate. People’s sexual orientation is no more appropriate a way of discrimination against them than race, religion or some other aspect.”

Whether earning the highest score in the county or the lowest, city officials agreed Orange County can do more.

Benavides said he’d like more feedback from the LGBT community, which he said is a growing demographic in Santa Ana.

Shaw said he’d like to see more openly gay officials in positions of leadership.

“I shouldn’t be the only one,” he said. “I feel it’s my responsibility to develop a farm team to get more LGBT leaders into the forefront. That may be a radical agenda for Orange County, but I hope not.”

O’Connor said he believes Orange County’s scores could improve next year.

“Orange County has a vibrant LGBT community that is leading the way to bringing these scores up,” O’Connor said. “It’s very encouraging.”

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