HRC’s Municipal Equality Index: Why Some LGBTQ-Friendly Cities in Michigan Didn’t Make the List

Saugatuck ‘is a best-kept secret' says mayor

Every year, Human Rights Campaign (HRC) releases its Municipal Equality Index Report (MEI). In it, they highlight cities throughout the country leading in LGBTQ+ inclusivity and representation.

And, every year, for the past 10 years, major Michigan cities have been included on their list. Just last year, HRC highlighted 11 Michigan cities that varied in scores from 100 to 16. But several LGBTQ-friendly cities were missing. Why weren't some cities included? Especially ones you'd think should be on the list? Pride Source got in touch with HRC to understand their process.

HRC’s process

It takes HRC months to gather information for their annual report. “The research period is typically from February to June, every year,” explained Colin Kutney, associate director of state and municipal programs at HRC. “So, that means our internal team conducts research based on publicly available data that includes a program manager, a staff, legislative attorney and a group of law fellows throughout the year.”

During this research period, HRC also determines how they will select the cities. For example, last year’s 506 cities rated were:

  • The 50 state capitals
  • The 200 largest cities in the United States
  • The five largest cities or municipalities in each state
  • The cities home to the state’s two largest public universities (including undergraduate and graduate enrollment)
  • 75 cities and municipalities that have high proportions of same-sex couples
  • 98 cities selected by HRC and Equality Federation state groups members and supporters

Once the city’s selection criteria are determined, they pull from public and available documentation to rate draft scorecards, ranking and indexing each city. A city’s score is ranked out of 100 and is determined based on non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement and leadership on LGBTQ+ equality.

“Sometimes we look at Google searches or reported statistics of hate crimes to the FBI,” said Kutney. “We would go to the report from the FBI and look at that documentation there. But most documentation that supports the scores comes from the cities’ websites.”

Cities can self-submit their information to be qualified. No Michigan cities participated in 2021, but 11 Michigan cities qualified based on the initial selection criteria referenced above: Ferndale, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, East Lansing, Lansing, Pleasant Ridge, Sterling Heights, Traverse City and Warren, which ranked lowest with a score of 16%.

After draft scorecards are created, HRC then sends those out to the cities for review. “They have an opportunity to respond, but if we do not hear from the cities, that is what’s going to be published in the report,” said Kutney.

A queer mecca that didn't make the list

Saugatuck and its next-door neighbor Douglas are much smaller than the majority of the 11 Michigan cities featured in the MEI report. Still, with populations of only 964 people (Saugatuck) and 1,408 (Douglas), according to the World Population Review, the two cities have created something of an LGBTQ+ “mecca,” said Saugatuck Mayor Garnet Lewis.

“Our history has shown us to be that,” Lewis told Pride Source.

According to Saugatuck GLBT History Project, Saugatuck-Douglas is the midwest’s oldest and most popular LGBTQ+ destination spot. The area has over 100 LGBTQ-owned and friendly businesses and is a vacation hotspot for LGBTQ+ individuals.

Local government in Saugatuck-Douglas is also LGBTQ-inclusive. Lewis herself is an open lesbian who served on Saugatuck’s city council before being appointed mayor in 2021.  “It’s a very welcoming community,” she said of Saugatuck.

Douglas shares in this distinction, something City Manager Richard LaBombard agrees with.

“Douglas as a hub for the LGBTQ+ community has deep roots established by the creative community,” LaBombard explained.

Over the years, LaBombard said Douglas has made continuous efforts to expand its LGBTQ+ support within its community. Though Douglas didn't make the current list of 11 Michigan cities, he does recall the city self-submitting to the MEI report two years ago.

“The city actively investigated how the MEI reporting process works because we thought it was important for the Douglas community to be represented,” said LaBombard. “City staff also reviewed current policies and made recommendations to the City Manager to revise several policies and ordinances based on information available in the MEI survey.”

Kutney told Pride Source that "MEI feedback deadline is the last business day in July, and this outreach was far after the 2019 deadline," as the city emailed HRC on Nov. 27, 2019, according to Kutney. "If the city had completed the self-submit process at this time, they would have been included in the 2020 publication cycle.""I replied on December 19, 2019, and clarified that the MEI would not expand the number of cities rated beyond 506," Kutney added, "but they were welcome to receive a rating through the self-submit process. I sent a link to the self-submit process. We've not received additional correspondence or documentation for assessment from Douglas since this initial outreach."

Other cities that were contacted about their potential efforts to help their city rank on HRC's MEI include Royal Oak, Berkley and Marquette, none of which responded to our inquiries by press time.