By ERIN ROLL
Although Montclair scored high in an assessment of how welcoming it is toward the LGBTQ community, township and community officials want to do more. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s recently released report, Montclair’s score of 71 was an improvement over the township’s 2018 score of 58.
Two weeks ago, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair launched a campaign to encourage Montclair to be more welcoming and protective toward the LGBTQ population. The program is being led by the UUCM’s Social Justice Coalition.
Coalition co-chair Johanna Foster, who is helping to lead UUCM’s work, said the Social Justice Coalition was moved to act last year after seeing the township’s low 2018 score.
“Some parts of the assessment that concerned us were the lack of transgender inclusive health benefits for municipal workers, the lack of non-discrimination agreements for municipal contractors, and the lack of city employee domestic partner benefits. We were also pretty disturbed to learn that we were rated poorly on services for both LGBTQ youth and elders,” Foster said.
Municipal Equality Index
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Since 2012, the Human Rights Campaign, which works to advance justice issues for LGBTQ people, scores towns on a Municipal Equality Index with scores up to 100. Ten other New Jersey towns were graded on the MEI, including Hoboken, Jersey City, Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, Lambertville, Elizabeth, New Brunswick, Paterson, Trenton and Newark.
Hoboken and Jersey City were tied for the top score, with both cities earning a perfect score of 100 on the MEI. Montclair was tied with Elizabeth for sixth place.
Towns are assessed points based on five categories: non-discrimination laws, law enforcement, municipal services, municipality as employer, and local leadership on LGBTQ equality.
- Montclair received a perfect score in two categories: non-discrimination laws, and law enforcement. Noted was Montclair Police Department’s LGBTQ police liaison or task force, and that all 2017 (the most recent available) hate crimes statistics were reported to the FBI.
- Montclair received 7 points out of 12 in the municipal services category, which assesses efforts to include LGBTQ constituents — including LGBTQ youth and elders — in local services and programs.
- The township got 7 out of 28 points in the “municipality as employer” category: in which municipalities offer protections and equivalent benefits to LGBTQ employees, offer contracts to fair-minded businesses and take steps to ensure an inclusive workplace.
- In the local leadership category, Montclair got 7 points out of 28 for having non-discrimination policies in city employment.
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville has started working with the congregation on the campaign.
Although the 2019 score was an improvement over the 2018 number for Montclair, Baskerville said it was distressing to see the township score so low, especially considering Montclair’s reputation for being a diverse and welcoming town. “We run around and tout ourselves on being diverse, but when I saw where we were on the list, I was chagrined,” she said.
Montclair does not allow for any form of discrimination, including against sexual orientation and gender identity, and the township follows all state and federal civil rights laws, according to Baskerville.
Officials however caution the MEI may not be the most accurate indicator of how welcoming Montclair is.
The MEI is a valuable tool for measuring how cities and towns are doing in terms of equality, said Jon Oliveira of Garden State Equality, but the MEI’s categories are by no means exhaustive.
It is likely that Montclair may actually being doing better than it scored on the MEI, because the township does have some of the recommended items, including an LGBTQ liaison with the police, Baskerville said. In addition, residents and township employees may not be aware of the protections and services that the township offers, so an education campaign, aimed at township staff and the general public, is crucial.
Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael, one of the congregation’s two ministers, said the group felt compelled to focus on LGBTQ issues.
“What we’re seeing is when we choose a single issue area and put our power to work, we have a far greater capacity to make change,” she said.
One of the congregation’s ministry groups, Out Front, already provides aid and support for LGBTQ members of the congregation and the community at large, as well as education and outreach services for the community. The group, led by UUCM member Becca Seibert, meets every Sunday at 12:15 p.m.
Foster said the UUCM will be meeting with Montclair township officials to identify where Montclair can do better on LGBTQ protections.
“Our ultimate goal is not simply to earn a higher score just for the sake of a higher score, but to bring about real change that makes a substantive difference in the quality of life of LGBTQ people in Montclair,” Foster said.
Baskerville said the MEI score card will be cross-checked with services to assess what Montclair offers and what is needed in the future. She also wants to ensure that commissions, such as the Senior Citizens Advisory Commission and the Housing Commission, have LGBTQ representation among their membership.
The Civil Rights Commission chair Christa Rapoport is also open to creating a sub-committee to address LGBTQ issues, Baskerville said.
The UUCM and the township have also been in discussions of partnering with the schools on an education campaign, Baskerville said.
Foster said the church is encouraged by township officials’ participation in the campaign.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight, but we believe change on this is definitely possible. While we are troubled by some of the specific issues highlighted by the MEI, we are looking forward to working with town officials to improve the quality of life for Montclair’s LGBTQ community,” Foster said.