Roanoke City Nets Highest Score in LGBTQ Equality Index After Years of Failing Grades

The city joins six other Virginia localities in scoring 100 on the Municipal Equality Index from the Human Rights Campaign.

An attendee of the Roanoke Pride Festival on April 30, 2023 wears rainbow flags at Elmwood Park. PHOTO BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

After years of failing grades, Roanoke City has earned the highest score on a national measurement of a government’s LGBTQ-friendly policies.

The city joins six other Virginia localities in scoring 100 on the Municipal Equality Index from the Human Rights Campaign, one of the country’s foremost LGBTQ-rights groups.

Roanoke announced Tuesday that it’s among 129 localities to earn the highest score out of 506 cities and counties analyzed this year. The city had a grade of 86 last year.

“I’m proud of it,” Councilwoman Luke Priddy said. “But we still have more that we can do.”

The metric rates cities based on their employment practices, nondiscrimination law, law enforcement policies and public positions on LGBTQ equality, among other areas.

The biggest boost in score, worth 10 points, came from the city’s establishment of an LGBTQ liaison in the Roanoke Police Department. The department created the liaison role this spring to make LGBTQ residents feel safer and to help improve the city’s HRC score.

Angie O’Brien, assistant city manager, said the city was also able to provide documentation to HRC about existing programs that help LGBTQ residents. Those range from providing services to LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ youth and those living with HIV or AIDS.

Also new for 2023, O’Brien said the city ensured that single-user restrooms in city buildings were labeled as all-gender facilities.

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Before his election last year, Priddy lobbied Council in 2019 to improve its HRC score, which that year stood at 22 on the 100-point scale.

Since then, the city has taken steps to refine its policies.

That includes adding gender identity to the city’s employment non-discrimination policy, as well as specifying that employee healthcare plans include transgender-inclusive benefits.

Voters last year picked Priddy and two other openly gay candidates to serve on City Council, giving Roanoke the distinction of having the most LGBTQ members on a local governing body in Virginia.

(While most criteria on the Municipal Equality Index are focused on policies and services, HRC gives two extra points to a locality with at least one openly LGBTQ elected or appointed leader.)

LGBTQ advocates say the score is an important marker that can give residents — and potential new residents — a gut-check on how welcoming a place’s government is. But they also note the score is not necessarily “an encapsulation of what it feels like to be an LGBTQ+ person walking down the street,” in the words of the HRC report.

“This is a measure of our municipal policies that keep us equitable,” Priddy said. “It's not necessarily a reflection of a person's experiences in that particular locality.”

Priddy also noted that despite the city’s 100 grade, it’s “not a perfect score.”

Roanoke’s base rate was 93, with room for improvement in city leadership’s pro-equality legislative or policy efforts, as well as the rigors of its human rights commission.

HRC gives bonus points for cities providing certain LGBTQ services, which is how Roanoke reached the max 100 score.

In 2018, Roanoke scored a 12 on the index, increasing to 22 in 2019 and to 54 in 2020.

This year, other Virginia cities scoring 100 included Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Hampton, Richmond and Virginia Beach. The lowest score in Virginia was for Newport News, which fell to 66 from 70 last year.

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