Families and community members gathered June 4, 2021 to see Montclair raise its first-ever Progressive Pride Flag, which includes the colors black and brown to represent communities of color, as well as the light pink, blue and white of the transgender flag. (DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA / STAFF)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

For the first time, Montclair has received a score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index — the highest ranking possible from the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization.

The township has seen steady improvement on the index for the last few years, since what Councilman Peter Yacobellis called “abysmal” scores of 61 in 2017 and 58 in 2018. Yacobellis, who joined the council in 2020, is the township’s first openly gay elected official as well as the founder of Out Montclair, which provides resources and social events for the township’s LGBTQ community.

In the time since the 2018 ranking, the township has revised some policies and put new resources in place. For instance, Montclair’s police department created an LGBTQ liaison position — earning the township 10 of 10 available points for doing so for the first time on the 2019 index. 

The township now raises a Progressive Pride Flag at town hall, and waives fees for youth groups such as the Gay Student Alliance for activities on town property. Montclair gets “flex” points for having Yacobellis on the council — awarded when a municipality has at least one LGBTQ elected or appointed municipal leader. 

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But the score of 100 for 2021 is the biggest year-to-year leap Montclair has seen — 22 points above 2020’s 78. That’s in large part due to a slate of policies Yacobellis advocated and the Township Council approved this summer. 

The township expanded its prohibitions against discrimination to include gender identity and expression. For the first time, it prohibited contractors who work with the township from discriminating based on sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression as well. Those measures passed through the council with no friction. 

Another — to require most publicly accessible single-occupancy bathrooms in Montclair to be accessible to all genders — passed with a 4-3 vote, with some on the council saying they worried about putting an extra burden on businesses, that they wanted more time for the business community to weigh in, or that they didn’t want to legislate national issues on the local level. Yacobellis, Mayor Sean Spiller, Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams and Councilman Bob Russo all supported the measure. Councilman David Cummings, Councilwoman Robin Schlager and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock opposed it. 

The council also passed a resolution affirming its opposition to “conversion” therapy for minors, which aims to change an individual’s sexual orientation (it’s been illegal in New Jersey for therapists to subject minors to the practice since 2013), though Cummings and Hurlock abstained.

Bill Courson, senior community advocate for Out Montclair, welcomes the community to Montclair’s Progressive Pride Flag raising on June 4. (DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA / STAFF)

All of those policy updates contributed to the higher 2021 score.

“Over the past year the township took great strides to advance LGBTQIA+ equality by adopting laws and creating policies that protect everyone,” Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller said in a statement to Montclair Local. “Achieving the top score in the Human Rights Campaign 2021 Municipal Equality Index only further demonstrates Montclair’s position as a truly inclusive and diverse place to live.”

Yacobellis, in a statement about the score, described it as the result of a “years-long relay,” thanking community members for their support, “and specifically members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation who saw this as a red flag years ago and embarked on an effort to work with our township staff and government to move the needle.”

He also credited several township employees for their work on the policies and community engagement: Township Manager Stafford, Township Attorney Ira Karasick, Montclair Police Department LGBTQ+ community liaison Glenda Rivera, Township Affirmative Action officer and LGBTQ+ community liaison Bruce Morgan. And he said Russo, Price Abrams and Spiller had provided “enduring support and contributions to what is now a perfect score/”

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, in a statement released Thursday, said it began “educating and organizing around the issues underlying Montclair’s poor score,” after the 1998 score.

“Montclair’s MEI score is anything but ‘just a number,'” the Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael, senior co-minister of the congregation, said. “It is an expression of a commitment to value the lives of our LGBTQIA citizens as highly as we value the lives of all our citizens. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair should feel decidedly gratified that we had a role in this necessary transformation.”

In Yacobellis’s statement, Christa Rapoport, chair of Montclair’s Civil Rights Commission, called the score a “terrific moment for Montclair and in particular our LGBTQ+ community,” commending those “all of those who have fought for full equality under the law for all people and saw through the enactment of multiple changes to law and policy in the township.”

She gave particular praise to two fellow commission members Madeline Gale and Reubena Spence for their advocacy and awareness-building. Both joined the commission, Rapoport said, after she and Dr. Renee Baskerville, then a councilwoman serving the Fourth Ward, spoke about getting LGBTQ representation on the Civil Rights Commission itself. Rapoport and Baskerville had worked together on efforts to improve the index score overall, she said.

Rapoport said early rankings were also lower than necessary, because the township hadn’t correctly reported on some policies and practices — such as the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms in town hall and at Montclair High School, or the availability of safe Spaces at the Montclair Public Library.

“It’s about lived equality,” Yacobellis told Montclair Local this week. “It’s making sure someone who shows up at a restaurant and who is nonbinary doesn’t have an anxiety attack figuring out which restroom they’re going to use.”

Municipalities opt into the ranking; a dozen New Jersey communities were ranked last year. Hoboken, Jersey City and Princeton each scored 100 that year, as did 94 of the 506 municipalities ranked nationwide. Some other New Jersey municipalities got close — Lambertville at 98, Asbury Park at 96 and Trenton at 95.

Even with Montclair’s score of 100 for 2021, there’s room for improvement in the HRC ranking. The index awards points to municipalities for their own policies, or at times for those of the counties or states in which they’re located. There are 100 standard points available, as well as the flex points that can edge a score up if a municipality falls short by some standard measures. A municipality’s raw total might exceed 100
(Montclair’s was 102), but the organization only awards final scores of up to 100 regardless. 

Montclair, for instance, missed out on 6 possible standard points because it doesn’t offer health benefits to accommodate the specific needs of transgender individuals (such as hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgery); Yacobellis noted the municipality offers a state-negotiated health plan to its workers.   

Celeste Fiore, founder and chair of the Montclair-based Trans Affirming Alliance as well as a board member with Out Montclair, congratulated the township on the score, and the recent policy changes that enabled it.

“I also hope that the township will look to include gender-affirming healthcare in its policy for its workers in the years ahead as well as creating more services to make sure this most marginalized community is further supported,” Fiore said in the statement Yacobellis provided. The statement also included praise for Spiller and the Township Council from Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, for advancing the policy changes.

Yacobellis noted the township didn’t get the 2 flex points available for providing services to LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness, or another 2 for providing services to people living with HIV or AIDS. There are multiple organizations in town that provide services to homeless individuals, but Yacobellis said he’d love to see Montclair make arrangements for “at least a few beds” specifically for LGBTQ teens.

He’d also like to see a bullying prevention policy, and a requirement that contractors receiving money from the township have such policies as well (another 2 available points).

“And down the road, I hope, when we have a community center in Montclair, I hope there’s someone on site who can deal with human needs, human health needs — a counselor, for example,” he said. “So for instance, if someone has a tough time on the [athletic] court, they’d have someone they could come in and talk to.”

Yacobellis said he’s spent most of his life fighting for LGBTQ equality under the law, but in more recent years has turned his focus to lived equality — to practices that make environments more inclusive and welcoming. The HRC index, he said, helps guide that process.

“As far as I’m concerned, we should try to max out every base point and flex point,” he said.

The 2021 rankings were released Thursday.

An earlier version of this post included an incorrect first name for Councilman Bob Russo.