Earlier this week, the city of Clarksdale, Miss. passed a citywide ordinance that prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, and public accommodations. It is now the third city in the state to pass this kind of legislation following the state capital of Jackson, which passed a similar ordinance in 2016. The city of Magnolia followed suit in 2017.
The ordinance was passed Monday night in a unanimous vote by the board of commissioners.
Rob Hill, the Mississippi state director for the Human Rights Campaign, claimed its passage is a victory for the LGBTQ community not only in Clarksdale and the state of Mississippi but in municipalities across the United States.
“This is exciting for the community of Clarksdale and shows the LGBTQ community that Mississippi is a place of acceptance,” he told INTO in a phone interview. “It means a lot for myself, as an LGBTQ Mississippian. To have a community say that people like me are valuable. That we are worth protecting.”
The ordinance has the full support of Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy, who told INTO that LGBTQ inclusive laws should be a no-brainer.
“Passing a non-discrimination ordinance in the current climate and culture in the United States today is just the right thing to do,” he claimed over the phone. “It goes beyond saying that in this country there needs to be all levels of protection for all people. We didn’t want to see our city make a mistake in 2018 and not pass this kind of ordinance with the environment we currently live in.”
Even as increasing numbers of municipalities recognize the needs of their LGBTQ communities, the state of Mississippi has previously struggled with queer and trans inclusion. The city of Starkville was the center of nationwide controversy earlier this year after it initially denied a petition for the town’s first Pride parade. That decision was reversed after a lawsuit was brought forward on behalf of parade organizers Bailey McDaniel and Emily Turner.
Mississippi is among 30 states which lack comprehensive LGBTQ discrimination protections. There are no protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in places like Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas, which supporters say makes ordinances like Clarksdale’s all the more important.
Those local protections are particularly crucial in Mississippi, which passed one of the most sweeping pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation in the U.S. two years ago. Entitled the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” House Bill 1523 allows for discrimination against LGBTQ people by faith-based organizations, as well as single mothers and unwed couples.
Furthermore, schools, service providers, and employers can deny trans people access to sex-segregated facilities based on their gender identity.
HB 1523 also provides people in taxpayer-funded roles the opportunity to discriminate based on their beliefs. That part of the law came partly in response to Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Ky. clerk who gained national attention in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She was later jailed for contempt of court.
Since HB 1523 went into effect after a federal injunction against the law was lifted last year, advocates note there have been few instances of such discrimination.
“We don’t know of any instances where a county clerk has denied a marriage license to a same-sex couple in Mississippi,” Hill said. “I think when the legislature passed [HB 1523,] it overestimated the appetite for discrimination.”
While HB 1523 doesn’t preempt any local municipalities from passing non-discrimination legislation, it does provide for a potential conflict between the anti-LGBTQ legislation and city ordinances passed in Jackson, Magnolia and now Clarksdale. The ordinance provides an opportunity to make non-discrimination the norm in Mississippi.
For instance, if an LGBTQ resident of Clarksdale is discriminated against, it allows an opportunity for advocates to bring a lawsuit overturning HB 1523 through federal action.
But until LGBTQ Mississippians are viewed as fully equal, Hill believes Clarksdale’s ordinance is a step in the right direction.
“There’s a perception that Mississippi is discriminatory, and it certainly feels like, with HB 1523’s passing, it has perpetuated that narrative and perception,” he claimed. “Then you see something like this and it’s a ray of light coming out of a dark place.”
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