Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: Fair housing in W.Va.: ‘Y’all’ should mean ‘all’

by Hannah McCune

Most West Virginians consider themselves good neighbors, hard workers, family-oriented and overall warm and welcoming folks. Despite this good nature, West Virginia ranked lowest on a scale of social acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. This nationwide ranking was part of a study conducted by UCLA Law’s Williams Institute in 2021 on the impact of stigma and discrimination on members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Discrimination is a direct result of a lack of social acceptance. This can look like unfair treatment in the sale or rental of housing, harassment in employment, bullying and harassment at school, family rejection of LGBTQ+ youth and even violence.

Illegal discrimination in housing often goes unreported in rural areas. Some individuals experiencing it might not even realize that the unfair treatment is actually illegal, such as housing discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity.

In January 2021, President Biden signed an executive order requiring LGBTQ+ protections in housing, health care and education, citing the recent Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County. Now, all laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex should also be interpreted as prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This is a huge advancement, considering this discrimination has been permitted for years.

Take the case of Walsh v. Friendship Village of South County, Mo. In 2016, a married lesbian couple put down a deposit for a unit in a St. Louis area retirement community. Friendship Village rejected them due to a “cohabitation policy” that allowed housing only to couples who had a marriage consisting of “one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible.”

The couple sued Friendship Village for sex discrimination in July 2018, alleging that if either woman had been a man, the couple would not have been rejected. The district court dismissed the lawsuit in January 2019, holding that the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition of sex discrimination does not protect same-sex couples. In June 2020, after the Bostock ruling, the case was reinstated in the district court. The parties were then able to reach a confidential settlement to resolve the case.

Another example of this type of discrimination comes from a case in Colorado. In 2017, a federal district court judge ruled that a Boulder County property owner violated the federal Fair Housing Act when she refused to rent to a same-sex couple, one of whom is transgender, and their children, because she worried their “uniqueness” would jeopardize her standing in the small mountain community.

The court’s opinion stated that discrimination against women for failure to conform to stereotypical norms about to whom they should be attracted is discrimination on the basis of sex under the Fair Housing Act. U.S District Judge Raymond P. Moore wrote, “Such stereotypical norms are no different from other stereotypes associated with women, such as the way she should dress or act … and are products of sex stereotyping.”

According to the aforementioned UCLA School of Law study, West Virginia is home to approximately 57,800 LGBTQ+ adults and approximately 10,300 LGBTQ+ youth ages 13-17. The community is diverse across socio-demographic characteristics, such as age, sex, race and ethnicity.

These aren’t just numbers. They’re members of our community, tax-paying citizens and our family members, coworkers and friends. West Virginians truly are good neighbors and welcoming folks, and housing policies in our state should reflect that. Expanding fair housing laws to include LGBTQ+ protections ensures we all have equal access to housing, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. There is no place for discrimination here, where “y’all” means “all.”

Hannah McCune is a fair housing specialist with the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. She is a first-generation college graduate who studied behavioral science at Glenville State University. She also provides civil rights in housing training throughout the State of West Virginia.