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US cities take the lead
in advancing gay rights

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

7 October 2009: Despite preparing for a large budget deficit, Cleveland, Ohio, Mayor Frank Jackson recently approved US$700,000 to help his city’s bid to land the 2014 Gay Games. “It’s the right thing to do,” said a spokesperson for Mayor Jackson. Meanwhile, across the country, Anchorage, Alaska Mayor Dan Sullivan vetoed a measure designed to counteract anti-gay discrimination in his city, saying that he was “not sure of the need for the ordinance.”

| Federal and local roles | Gay rights | New York City | The road ahead |

The very different actions of these mayors illustrates, not only America’s conflicting views of gay rights, but also the important role that cities and mayors have assumed as America’s arbiters of social policy and enablers of social change.

Changing federal and local roles
The modern civil rights movement in the US began in the mid-1950s as isolated protests by African-Americans against social inequity in local communities. Blacks were prevented from using on an equal basis with whites such public facilities as city buses, restrooms, parks, and schools. Employment practices also restricted the ability of Blacks to advance economically.

Discontent reached a crescendo in the summer of 1963 when over 1000 civil rights demonstrations, some violent, took place in 209 US cities. The protests were organized by civil rights groups and groups formed in reaction.

American mayors, cities, and states however, did little to promote racial integration. For example, the US Supreme Court outlawed the system of single-race public schools in 1954. In 1963, however, only 12,000 of the 3,000,000 African-Americans in the South attended integrated schools. Most African-American students were blocked from integrated classrooms by city and state racial policies and practices, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling. By 1963, it was painfully clear that only federal legislation could force the nation to change in any meaningful way its treatment of African-Americans.

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial segregation in education, employment, and public places. The Act extended protections to women as well as minorities. It marked the beginning of an intense period of federal legislative activity that lasted more than two decades. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination in housing. By 1988, federal protections made discrimination illegal based on religion, national origin, and handicapped status, in addition to race and sex.

During this ‘civil rights era’, social conditions changed dramatically in the US. Middle-class whites moved to the suburbs; Blacks, too poor to move, remained in the cities. Ironically, during the most productive period of federal civil rights legislation in the nation’s history, American metro areas re-segregated according to class, which Martin Luther King, Jr. described as the “white noose of suburbs around the black neck of cities.”

At the federal level – for both Republicans and Democrats – class was the key issue behind the abandonment of the needs of cities. This can best be seen in the flow of federal dollars to the local level. Federal funds to suburban America began to be directed primarily to the construction of roads and sewers and to the provision of tax benefits for mortgages for the millions of new homes being constructed. This type of subsidy was an investment in the future, an incentive for further development and private investment. Federal subsidies to American cities, on the other hand, primarily took the form of food stamps and welfare payments to poor individuals and families. These funds, by design and necessity, were consumed immediately and provided few future economic benefits to the community. Not surprisingly, suburbs flourished and cities languished.

What happened is that federal priorities had changed. Reflecting on the pending retirement of President Ronald Reagan and the recent election of George H. W. Bush as president, the New York Times wrote in 1988 that “Congress has lost its taste for the social agenda,” and predicted, correctly, that the “new Bush administration is less likely to be concerned with the social agenda than the Reagan White House has been.” Social issues had been replaced on the federal radar screen by economic issues, especially cutting taxes, reducing the size of government, and increasing America’s global financial and military influence.

The massive population shift was accompanied by a political realignment which favored the Republican Party with its strong constituency of mostly white suburban voters and effectively dismantled the Democratic base which supported an urban and human rights policy agenda.

As a result, cities and urban mayors effectively lost their voice in the American economic discourse, but, almost by default, assumed a new role as defenders of the nation’s marginalized populations.

Gay rights
The inversion of the roles of federal and local government regarding social issues can be seen in the gay rights movement. In 1998, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal workplace -- 26 years after Ann Arbor, Michigan and East Lansing, Michigan, became the first US cities to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Additional protections at the federal level are practically nonexistent, even today. For example, the US government does not prohibit discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation.

It is up to city and state ordinances to extend rights to gays, lesbians, and transgender people. About 100 cities in thirty-three states have enacted some type of civil rights legislation that includes sexual orientation, including Miami, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, and New York City.

New York City
In 1977, as a member of Congress, Edward Koch assumed leadership of a nondiscrimination bill that would have added “affectional or sexual preference” to existing federal civil rights laws. The measure failed to gain support in Congress.

When Koch became mayor of New York City in 1978, he took steps to extend rights to gays in ways in which federal and state laws did not. After several failed attempts, the New York City Council passed a Koch-introduced gay rights ordinance in 1986.

Under Koch’s successor, Mayor David Dinkins, New York City established a domestic partner registry in 1993. City workers who are homosexuals can get domestic partner health benefits. No such registry exists at the state level in New York, although Governor David Patterson has indicated he would sign a same-sex marriage bill currently under consideration by the New York State legislature.

New York City represents a typical pattern in the US over the past 20 years, with mayors advancing a human rights agenda in the absence of state and federal action.

The road ahead
In one of the great ironies of American politics, the erosion of the Democratic Party’s traditional urban base occurred simultaneously with the political ascendency of African-Americans in these cities. Since 1967, over 500 American cities have been led by Black mayors. Many of these cities, however, experienced economic decline as the middle-class moved to the suburbs, marginalizing both the cities’ remaining residents from the economic mainstream and their mayors’ influence in the national political debate.

It was largely through the efforts of great mayors like Harold Washington of Chicago and William Johnson of Rochester that the voices of America’s less popular population groups have not been silenced. Washington, Johnson, and their like-minded colleagues across the US placed a high priority on the causes of minorities and the poor. They did so, not through protests, demonstrations, or court actions, but by empowering residents through open and consultative governance styles. They achieved a balance between powerful downtown business interests, poor neighborhoods, and other forces within the city. They developed profound models of partnership between City Hall and those interested in community and social change that countered racialists and anti-democratic practices. These mayors essentially laid the practical and philosophical foundation for the post-partisan politics of Barack Obama.

Since the election of Obama as president, there are signs that federal and local governments may again become equal partners in the full national political discourse.

President Obama established a White House Office of Urban Affairs and ordered all federal agencies to take the needs of cities into consideration in policy and budget development. Obama’s massive stimulus federal package also includes broad financial support for cities. These actions should help strengthen the clout of cities and mayors in national economic debates.

These are also signs that the federal government will become more active in social issues. For example, President Obama has promised to repeal the federal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, by which military personnel can be discharged from the armed services for acknowledging a homosexual orientation. He has also vowed to fight for the repeal the “Defense Against Marriage Act,” which forbids federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows states to ignore such marriages if performed in other states.

In other words, a broader vision appears to be emerging in the US that blends economic policy, social policy, and urban policy, drawing city, state, and federal officials into the same conversation.

Includes information from the Dirksen Congressional Center,

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