Editors' Note: Guest blogger Robert Dion, Ph.D., is the chairperson of the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Human Relations Commission. He is an associate professor of American Politics at the University of Evansville.
Supporters of equal rights have something to celebrate this week, and it comes from the heart of the American heartland.
The Evansville (Indiana) City Council voted unanimously this week to amend its human relations ordinance to include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the areas of education, employment, housing, and public accommodations. News reports say that the Evansville mayor, Jonathan Weinzapfel, has officially approved of these changes, and they are to take effect immediately.
In many ways, this is a noteworthy achievement for the city. Prior to this week, Evansville was the largest city in Indiana not to have a city ordinance that included protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (It is the third largest city in the state after Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.) It now becomes the only city in southern Indiana to pass this kind of legislation. Bloomington, Indiana, the home of Indiana University, is the only other city in Indiana south of Indianapolis that has passed a civil rights ordinance with protections against sexual orientation discrimination. Evansville also becomes just the third city in Indiana - along with Bloomington and Indianapolis - to include gender identity in its civil rights ordinance.
The changes to the city's municipal code were the result of a bipartisan effort by two members of the Evansville City Council: Connie Robinson and Dan McGinn.
Democrat Connie Robinson was recently elected (unopposed) to her fifth term on the city council, and there is speculation that she will serve as council president starting next January. A local businesswoman and entrepreneur, she is the only person of color currently serving in city government. Connie Robinson has been a longtime advocate for civil rights for all people, including sexual minorities, and she is a good friend to the Human Relations Commission. She is the vice-chairperson of the Vanderburgh County Democratic Central Committee.
Dan McGinn is the only Republican serving on the Evansville City Council. He was recently elected (unopposed) to his first full term on the council after being appointed in 2009 by a Republican caucus to fill out an unexpired term. A trial lawyer who served for years as the city's zoo director, Dan McGinn has been a longtime supporter of civil rights for sexual minorities. During the council's deliberations this week, he emphasized how passing protections against discrimination is widely understood to be good for economic development efforts in a community.
For his part, the Evansville mayor, Jonathan Weinzapfel, has distinguished himself during his political career as a steadfast supporter of civil rights. Over the years, he has hired people who are openly gay or lesbian to serve on his campaign staff and in his administration, and he has appointed gay people to boards and commissions as part of his effort to bring together the best people. During his time as mayor, he has worked with the Human Relations Commission to recognize businesses and individuals that promote diversity and inclusion in the Evansville area through the Mayor's Celebration of Diversity Awards program.
The city of Evansville has an 8-1 Democratic majority on its council, along with a popular two-term Democratic mayor. While this might seem to suggest that the push to pass protections for GLBT citizens would be an easy matter, people more knowledgeable about Indiana politics know that this is not necessarily the case. Democrats in southern Indiana have a reputation for being far more conservative than their counterparts across the country. (Evansville is just across the Ohio River from the commonwealth of Kentucky, which is overwhelmingly Democratic in its party affiliation, but is unquestionably a conservative-leaning state.) At the opposite end of the state, the city of South Bend has tried and failed repeatedly to pass a similar ordinance in its city council - even though they, too, have an 8-1 Democratic majority and a popular and long-serving Democratic mayor.
The decisive victory in Evansville came about as the result of years of quiet advocacy by civil rights advocates in both political parties. Over two years ago, the Human Relations Commission strongly reaffirmed its support for adding sexual orientation to the city's civil rights ordinance. This year, it voted overwhelmingly to add gender identity to their list of requested changes. At the same time, local gay community leaders like Wally Paynter of the Tri-State Alliance have worked in various ways to keep this issue on the minds of policymakers at all levels of government.
In October, as the city elections approached, the Tri-State Alliance co-sponsored a candidate forum with the local chapter of PFLAG at a downtown church. Not every candidate showed up for this event, but there was a substantial turnout from both parties - and most of it was very positive and affirming. At least one candidate said that she was not only in favor of passing an expansive civil rights ordinance, but she was surprised that it hadn't been passed already. This led to a growing sense that the time was ripe to ask the council to consider the issue, and it ultimately resulted in this week's unanimous vote to take a strong stand for diversity and inclusion.