(Detroit Free Press) -- East Lansing is the friendliest city toward gays and lesbians in Michigan and one of the friendliest in the U.S., according to a new study recently released by a civil rights group. In contrast, Warren ranked last among nine Michigan cities surveyed in terms of friendliness to the LGBT community, scoring only 10 out of 100 points total.
The Human Rights Campaign examined 353 municipalities in the U.S. to see how open their governments are toward people who identify as as being lesbians, gay, bisexual or transgender. East Lansing scored a perfect 100 out of 100 total points, based on six criteria that focused on city laws and government outreach; it was one of only 38 cities in the U.S. to do so, according to the report.
The study said that being open to gays and lesbians can help cities develop and attract talent, an issue in Michigan, where attracting college grads has been a challenge. "Being welcoming to all residents and visitors reflects the core values of our university community," East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett said in the report, released Wednesday. "It's part of who we are."
The city, for example, has an ordinance banning discrimination against the LGBT community and also includes transgender people in health coverage.
Warren Mayor James Fouts dismissed the rankings, saying they were subjective and don't reflect the reality of his city, which he said is open to all. He notes that Warren has increasingly become racially, ethnically and religiously diverse, which is reflected in government officials.
"We don't have a policy against anybody, period," Fouts told the Free Press. "We've been very open-minded when it comes to diversity. We embrace diversity when it comes to race or ethnicity. ...We have been pioneers."
As examples, he said the city hired the first African-American fire commissioner in Macomb County and noted that the city has growing African American, Asian American and Arab American populations.
Fouts questioned the validity of the report and said that he doesn't know the sexual orientation of his employees or residents, and wouldn't ask them.
"I don't know who in the city is gay or transgendered," Fouts said. "There's no way of knowing, and besides, I wouldn't want to ask that. ... I respect people's privacy. What people are in their private lives is their business."
The report was released at a time of intense debate in Michigan over same-sex marriage and statewide civil rights protections for the the LGBT community. Two weeks ago, a federal appeals court upheld Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage. State legislators battled last week over the language of a bill that would prohibit bias against gays. And on Wednesday, a judge in Michigan ruled against a state law that bans public employers from offering benefits for gay couples.
"Midsize cities and small towns have become the single greatest engine of progress for LGBT equality," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "There is an ongoing race to the top to treat all people ... fairly under the law. It's time our state and federal laws caught up."
The study looked at the most populous cities in the U.S., the four biggest in each state, major university cities and cities with a high number of same-sex couples. The study's criteria focused on city laws and government outreach, not social institutions or the general population's attitudes. That's why a city such as Ferndale, which is known for its sizable LGBT community, didn't score as high as other cities.
The City of Troy faced controversy in 2011 over comments former Mayor Janice Daniels made about gay people that included the use of a slur. LGBT advocates said that is an example of a city not being welcoming. Voters recalled Daniels the following year.
The report took into consideration that cities might be in states that don't have same-sex marriage or statewide laws banning bias against LGBT people, such as Michigan. Cities can take proactive steps to battle bias even if they live in those states, the report said. East Lansing, for example, was one of 15 cities in the U.S. to score 100, despite being in a state that doesn't allow gay marriage or have anti-bias laws protecting gay and transgender people.
The six criteria used to judge cities were nondiscrimination policies, recognition of same-sex relationships, bias protection for city employees, LGBT services and programs, law enforcement and relationship with the LGBT community.
Ann Arbor was ranked as the second friendliest city toward the LGBT community, scoring 83, followed by Detroit, with a score of 74, Lansing with 64, Grand Rapids with 59, Ferndale with 57, Pleasant Ridge with 44, Sterling Heights with 24 and Warren with 10. Ann Arbor ranked first last year in the Human Rights Campaign's second annual report, but was knocked from the top spot after East Lansing changed some of its policies.
Last week, state legislators debated amending of the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include people in the LGBT community. Republicans want to introduce a bill that would add gays and lesbians as protected groups of people. They want to pair the bill with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics say could allow religious conservatives to discriminate against gay people. The bill's supporters say it will protect groups and individuals from being discriminated against because of their beliefs.
Democrats slammed both bills, saying the religious exemptions and failure to include transgender people would continue state-sanctioned bias.
Including transgender people in health care plans was one of the new criteria used to judge cities in the Human Rights Campaign report. The study said that being friendly to LGBT people can help a region attract educated people and grow the economy, especially important for metro Detroit, which ranks last among the top 25 biggest metro areas in attracting college grads from 2007 to 2012.
Curtis Lipscomb, executive director of Kick, an African-American LGBT center in Detroit, said that the city of Detroit has historically been a leader in gay and lesbian rights. Overall, city officials have been open to the community, he said.
While there has been progress, Lipscomb and other activists say there's room for improvement.
"We can do better," said Sommer Foster, director of political advocacy for Equality Michigan, which is pushing for statewide protections similar to those for race and ethnicity that are already in place. For example, some LGBT people may have protections under the law in the city where they live, but not in the city where they work.
Foster said: "There are too many gaps in Michigan."
Contact Niraj Warikoo: 313-223-4792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo
To read the report and see how the cities were ranked, go to hrc.org/mei