Madison is “perfect” for LGBTQ folks, if you’re cis, white, and well-off

We need to stop falling for gimmicks like the Human Rights Campaign’s bogus “Municipal Equality Index.” 
A Madison Police Department car decorated with a special "Pride" wrap, including a rainbow stripe running alongside the side trim of the vehicle and a rainbow-striped version of MPD's logo above the passenger side front wheel well.
Photo via Madison Police Department on Twitter.

We need to stop falling for gimmicks like the Human Rights Campaign’s bogus “Municipal Equality Index.” 

Another year, another misleading Madison headline. This most recent entry comes courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and their annual Municipal Equality Index. Local news headlines in December took the 100/100 rating and immediately crowed that our city earned a “perfect” score. 

The real story is, as usual, far more complex. And by promoting the results of the scorecard almost entirely uncritically, media outlets are helping Madison continue to whitewash its reputation and erase the lived experiences of a large segment of its LGBTQ population.

The HRC isn’t without blame. The scorecard itself presents a skewed view of what it means to be queer or trans in Wisconsin. They note that the tally is based on “non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement and leadership on LGBTQ+ equality.” Each item has a score of X out of X points available, which is then added up to reach the total. Much like HRC’s widely criticized Corporate Equality Index, which items are given more or less weight—or included at all—can quickly add up to making something look better than it really is (like notorious companies like DuPont Chemical and Nestlé earning “perfect” scores).

It’s not until halfway down the page on Channel 3000’s coverage of the Municipal Equality Index that any mention is made of Madison’s score only really applying if you’re white, cis, able-bodied, and well-off. Even then, it comes in the form of a quote:

“I think it kind of depends on who you are and probably depends on what zip code you’re in, for white people that are middle class, probably it’s a score of one hundred, if you’re a person of color or disabled or transgender, probably not so much,” Steve Starkey, executive director of OutReach LGBT Community Center, told Channel 3000.

It’s almost comical to have an article with a headline and opening that tout a “perfect score” for LGBTQ inclusiveness, but then go on to include this pretty enormous caveat almost as a footnote.

Except that big, splashy reports like this one, and the lazy media coverage that inevitably follows, contribute to the problem of inequality. Too many of those in positions of power and influence in Madison are very good at resting on laurels and past accomplishments that are wins only if you fall within certain demographics. The framing is bad from the jump (and Channel 3000 isn’t the only media outlet guilty of it).

But while the city does have a lot to be proud of and while it is probably one of the better places in Wisconsin to live if you’re LGBTQ, that is, quite frankly, a very low bar. The fact remains that we allow too many of our community members to fall through the cracks. Sometimes, it even seems by design.

The HRC’s scorecard conveniently glosses over the material conditions of LGBTQ people, and does little to break out the differences in access to resources or treatment by the authorities based on intersecting identities like being trans and/or a person of color. As Starkey pointed out to Channel 3000, quality of life can be very different depending on those factors. 

It also feels wildly irresponsible to give more weight to the presence of an LGBTQ liaison on the police force (10 points) than to whether or not the city provides services to the transgender community or to LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness (both 0 out of 2 points for Madison, by the way).

How many LGBTQ people does the Madison Police Department arrest each year, and how does that compare to arrest figures for the rest of the population? We don’t know those numbers. We do know that Black and Brown people face disproportionate rates of arrest. For instance, as of 2019, at 7% of the Madison population, Black people were issued a quarter of city traffic citations, and in 2018 constituted 43% of arrests. In the same time frame, the proportion of Black young people arrested went from 49% to 66%. In 2018, Black people made up 46% of the inmates in the Dane County Jail. 

LGBTQ people nationally face higher rates of arrest and incarceration, largely due to systemic inequalities, bigotry, and bias in policing. If you’re LGBTQ and Black or Brown, these numbers go up even more. A liaison or taskforce is not enough to put a dent in that reality. 

There’s no real engagement in HRC’s metrics with what it’s like to be disabled and queer in Madison, either. Recent research shows that LGBTQ people are more likely than the general population to have a disability. 

All of that would seem too complex for a splashy, PR-generating scorecard to take into account. Political and business leaders would rather have something simple and shiny to point to as proof that their city is the best city, please vote/work for them, thanks very much and goodnight.

Much like similar rankings about “best places to live” cranked out by a variety of clickbait websites and magazines, stories like this seem more like propaganda than a real and useful benchmark of progress. 

The fact is, until our state and our city truly get their act together to meaningfully tackle the systemic inequalities that have long targeted and plagued anyone not white, cisgender, straight, and able-bodied, any ranking that claims “perfection” should be met with immediate skepticism.  

Keep an eye out for anyone who uncritically holds up the HRC scorecard, or any similar “top” ranking. Remember just how many people are being left out of their tidy narratives, and wonder why that might be.

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