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Morgantown Human Rights Commission members reflect on city’s equality index score

MORGANTOWN — Don Spencer, a mainstay on the Morgantown Human Rights Commission, said the commission’s goal has never been overly complicated.

“We want everyone welcome here, and we’re showing that,” he explained during a recent conversation about Morgantown’s ranking in the latest Municipal Equality Index, which uses dozens of criteria to rate how inclusive municipal laws, policies and services are of LGBTQ people.

 The city learned last week that it was among 110 cities nationwide, and only the second in West Virginia (Huntington), to achieve a top mark of 100.

Spencer said raising Morgantown’s score from a low of 42 has been an eight-year effort. The city jumped at least 23 points from 2020’s score of 77.

The majority of that effort has come from the volunteer members of the HRC, including its current chair, Ash Orr, who said the HRC used the annual index as a roadmap to address areas in which the city was faltering.

“The MEI helped set the tone for what we wanted to do, but I think it’s important to state that we didn’t want to do these things just to check a box,” Orr said.  “We wanted to do these things to make sure we are putting the correct protections in place for people in our community and we are acknowledging where our weak points are so we can continue to strengthen and move forward.”

Among the initiatives brought forward in recent years are the creation of LGBTQ liaison positions within city administration and law enforcement, a ban on the practice of conversion therapy for youth within the city and the formation of a citizen review board for the city’s police department.

Orr went on to explain what those efforts mean, particularly when recognized at the national level.

 “I think it helps kind of reframe opinions of West Virginia and Appalachia in general,” they said, admitting that the politically conservative slant of the state is discouraging for some.

  “I think sometimes people look at that and think these areas aren’t worth fighting for. That’s far from the truth. So when people are able to see cities in West Virginia scoring 100 on the MEI and constantly working to better the environment for minority communities in our region, I think it helps reshift those narratives and show that we are worth fighting for and we can make change happen.”

 But the impacts go beyond image, City Councilor and HRC liaison Brian Butcher noted.

Being recognized as an inclusive, welcoming community impacts the mental health, security  and well-being of community members, Butcher said, adding that it also impacts the city’s bottom line — particularly with so many now free to move and work remotely.

“A lot of people would see the beauty of our landscape and the hometown feel, but don’t necessarily want to live in a place that has bigoted lawmakers or doesn’t value them as a human. So by us outwardly having a metric we can point to that counters that narrative, that has an economic impact for us,” he said.

 Going forward, Spencer said the HRC would next like to focus on benefits for domestic partners, both locally and at the state level.

He said the city will be scored again next year and should not rest on this accomplishment.

“This is something that is not permanent,” he said of the score, adding “There are so many more things that can be done. We hope the Human Rights Commission can contribute to the process of helping those changes occur.”

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