Every year, the Human Rights Campaign ranks cities across the United States based on the LGBTQ friendliness of their laws and services. And every year, a few Texas cities — Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin — get perfect scores.
Dallas suburbs, however, do not. Take Irving, for example: The city scored a total of 0 out of a possible 100 points in 2015.
But that's changing. The latest iteration of the HRC report released Tuesday showed that some DFW cities — like Irving — are making significant progress toward inclusivity. Four of the six Texas cities that improved their scores this year are in DFW. They are McKinney, Irving, Denton and Arlington.
Rafael McDonnell, spokesman for the Dallas-based Resource Center, said the gains can be attributed to demographic shifts as suburbs seek to become more appealing to businesses and a young, progressive labor force.
"Millennials and younger folks who are relocating look to see where stuff is equal," McDonnell said.
McKinney made the largest gains of any Texas city, doubling its score from last year as a result of new anti-discrimination policies.
Denton implemented new city services for LGBTQ youth. And Irving, after jumping more than 26 points last year, improved again in 2019 thanks to public statements by city leadership promoting equality.
"If you can move from zero to 36 in a couple of years time — which is what has happened, the city of Irving is still functioning and didn't burn to the ground — I think that should encourage other cities to take a long, hard look at what they're doing," McDonnell said. Irving's bid to host Amazon's second headquarters helped push along some of the reforms, he added.
In 2018, Irving established two LGBTQ liaisons — one a city employee and the other a police sergeant — earning it a 15-point boost from the HRC.
Isaac Vasquez, the city's digital communications coordinator as well as LGBTQ liaison to city staff, said the city's abysmal score on earlier HRC rankings led to efforts to burnish its image. "We wanted to do everything that we could to change that and make it more inclusive and representative of the people who work here," he said, noting that the corporations the city is looking to woo are "at the forefront of diversity and inclusion."
Also, the failing grade was personal. "As a openly gay man, I would hate for somebody to feel uncomfortable working in this city or walking into this building and feeling that they're not represented," he said.
This year's was the eighth annual Municipal Equality Index released by the HRC and the Equality Federation Institute, which includes inclusivity ratings of over 500 cities. It gives a "bird’s-eye view of protections LGBTQ people have in the communities they call home," according to EFI executive director Rebecca Isaacs.
Average scores increased across the nation, according to the report, but not in all Texas cities. Amarillo lost a dozen points for failing to report hate-crime data to the FBI. Of the 25 Texas cities rated by the HRC, it was the only one that backslid.
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The HRC is using this year's report to highlight its efforts to pass an Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics under federal civil rights law. The bill passed the House with bipartisan support in May but has stalled in the Senate.
Some states provide their own protections, but Texas does not. Gov. Greg Abbott was heavily criticized by the HRC for signing into law a 2017 bill that allowed child welfare agencies to refuse services to LGBTQ children.
Without support from state leadership, advocates hope that more cities like Irving will take meaningful steps to enact inclusive policies locally, even as protections are delayed or even rolled back at the state and national levels.
"We have people moving into North Texas every single day," McDonnell said, "and they're watching us and seeing what we're doing."