This story was first published on UNC Media Hub. Story by Arabella Saunders. Video by Zach Engler. Graphic by Amelia Locklear.
Overhearing a classmate call UNC-Greensboro “UNC-Gay.”
That’s all it took to persuade 17-year-old Jennifer Ruppe to head to Greensboro as a high school senior in 1997.
“My mom wanted me to go to (Appalachian State) and I was like, ‘Snow? Gays? Gays.’ So, (Greensboro) is where I went,” Ruppe said.
After graduation, Ruppe spent the next two decades living in the Triad and working for nonprofits. In 2018, she was named executive director of the Guilford Green Foundation and LGBTQ Center, an advocacy and community center located in downtown Greensboro.
Three years later, in December 2021, the City of Greensboro received its first perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Municipal Equality Index, a nationwide report that examines how inclusive municipal laws, policies and services are of LGBTQ people.
Out of the 10 North Carolina cities included in the index, Greensboro, Chapel Hill and Durham scored 100 out of 100. Winston-Salem, Carrboro and Charlotte were not far behind with scores in the 80s.
“People often use the MEI to identify where they would like to live or vacation, and businesses may use the index to locate their company,” said Colin Kutney, associate director of state and municipal programs at Human Rights Campaign.
But not every municipality in North Carolina scored as well as the home of Ruppe’s “UNC-Gay.” Just 70 miles down the road, Cary scored a 12 out of 100, marking the sixth consecutive year the town has scored below 20.
On Jan. 19, 2021, Greensboro became one of five municipalities in North Carolina to pass an ordinance that explicitly protects LGBTQ people against discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. The move came after the sunset of House Bill 142, which prohibited municipalities from passing non-discrimination ordinances.
Ten months later, that action by the City Council helped Greensboro earn its perfect score on the Municipal Equality Index.
“We want people when they come to our city, when they talk to us, to feel affirmed and (to feel) that we understand where they’re coming from,” Greensboro Mayor Nancy B. Vaughan said. “That everybody is respected for their beliefs, for their lifestyles, and that we’re not making value judgments.”
The MEI rates 506 cities across the United States. Ratings are based on 49 different criteria that fall under the following categories: non-discrimination laws, municipality as employer, municipal services, law enforcement and leadership on LGBTQ equality.
2021 marked the first year Greensboro received a perfect score and the seventh consecutive year the city scored within the top two in North Carolina.
Ruppe said that these high scores are a result of city officials’ commitment to supporting LGBTQ people – from showing up to events sponsored by the Guilford Green Foundation to working with advocacy groups like EqualityNC to pass non-discrimination ordinances.
“We are fortunate that we don’t have to do a lot of advocacy to get these policies in place because our mayor is very active and making sure that this score stays up,” Ruppe said. “We’re here as a resource to educate all public officials, but I’ve never had to stand in front of city council and ask them to support anything because they’re (already) supporting it.”
UNC-Chapel Hill Public Policy professor Rebecca Kreitzer said that the obvious strength in the MEI is its ability to compare data across states. Seven of the 10 North Carolina cities included in the index scored above the national average of 67 points.
“A downside is that numerical scores like this do not always leave room for nuance,” Kreitzer said.
For Greensboro, that nuance comes in the form of policies on paper versus the degree to which those policies are implemented within the community.
Greensboro scored 10 out of 10 points for including an LGBTQ liaison in its police department.
“That officer is very nice. He is also a straight man,” Ruppe said. “There should be an LGBTQ person in that role, period, full stop. Until there is, I don’t think that that liaison is much more than a checkbox, no matter how good their intentions are.”
Where Cary keeps going wrong
Municipal support for LGBTQ equality doesn’t come as easy in Cary. In recent years, the town has consistently received abysmal scores on the MEI.
In 2021, Cary scored 12 points for reporting its 2019 hate crime statistics to the FBI. It scored zero points in all other areas of the MEI scorecard.
In 2014, the first year Cary was included in the MEI, it scored a 51, while Greensboro scored a 42.
From 2015 to 2017, Cary scored 12 points for reporting its hate crime statistics and an additional six points for enumerating anti-bullying policies in its schools. From 2018 to 2020, the town scored a zero out of 100 after failing to report its hate crime statistics (anti-bullying policies in schools was not included in the MEI criteria these years).
Rashonda Harris, Cary’s diversity, equity and inclusion manager, said that the reason Cary received a score of zero is because it “did not complete the survey.”
But Kutney responded: “Since the MEI is not a survey, there was nothing for them to complete. The MEI Team conducted research and compiled a draft scorecard and sent it to the city for review.”
Jennifer Andrew, the communications director at EqualityNC, an LGBTQ advocacy group based in Raleigh, said that it is clear in communications from Cary’s mayor, Harold Weinbrecht, that the town has no immediate plans for passing non-discrimination ordinances.
“Even though the HB2 moratorium has expired, that’s not the same as the State giving its permission,” Weinbrecht said in a Aug. 15, 2021 blog post. “With the General Assembly relatively the same in both party and ideal, I believe taking action locally would simply produce the same result or worse.”
Despite Cary’s legislative reluctance, 16 other jurisdictions in North Carolina have passed non-discrimination ordinances in the past year.
Kutney said Cary town officials reached out to the Human Rights Campaign in mid-January for help in improving the town’s score.
“Commonly, the first step to achieving a higher MEI score is to reach out to us so we can answer questions and offer resources,” Kutney said.
Reality versus the scorecard
The MEI focuses on how well city officials support LGBTQ people through laws, policies and resources, meaning that the scores cannot be translated to accurate predictions or portrayals of the lived experiences of LGBTQ people across the U.S.
On Jan. 27 of this year – three months after Greensboro received its perfect score for LGBTQ support and protections – Ruppe gathered her staff and volunteers together at the Guilford Green Foundation and reminded them to be careful when entering and exiting the building.
The night before, their pride flag was torn down. Security camera footage shows two people walking past the entrance to the foundation around 9:15 p.m., turning around and one person climbing on top of a recycling bin and ripping the flag down.
“No one should have to say that to their employees and their volunteers,” Ruppe said. “We know that generally, there is support, but the growing number of people who are emboldened by recent administrations are louder sometimes than the support that we have, and it’s scary, and it’s stressful, and it’s hurtful.”
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