116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Ten years after the Human Rights Campaign first rated cities across the country on how inclusive they are to LGBTQ people, cities in Iowa have achieved substantial improvements.
Since 2013, Cedar Rapids has improved from 63 points to 97 on the annual Municipal Equality Index — a slight dip from the perfect 100 the city held for five years. Iowa City has held a perfect score for eight consecutive years — longer than any other city in the state.
This year, all cities except for Waterloo and Sioux City scored in the 90s or 100 — the top 25 percent of city ratings in the country. But even the lowest-rated cities in Iowa — Waterloo and Sioux City — scored 71 and 79 points, respectively, well above the average of 67 points.
Advocates worry that despite the raised scores on the index, the Iowa Legislature is tracking a number of bills that make it hard for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer to live in the state. LGBTQ rights group One Iowa, for instance, tracked at least 16 bills in the Legislature this year, including bills that discriminate against a LGBTQ family in a foster care situation and that prohibit a transgender person from using a public bathroom that fits with its gender identity.
Why it matters
“LGBTQ people are from everywhere, we live everywhere,” said Cathryn Oakley, founding author of the Municipal Equality Index, state legislative director and senior council member of the Human Rights Campaign, the major campaign for LGBTQ rights in the nation. “People sometimes get this idea that LGBTQ equality is important for people on the coasts and cities. That’s not exclusively true. Equality is something we should have everywhere.”
The initial benefits of the ratings are obvious: knowing which cities have equal protection in employment, city employment that values diversity and equity in the workplace, non-discrimination city ordinances and liaisons that give LGBTQ people a voice at the table,
But use as a reference point in personal decisions, business affairs and tourism promotion are also a benefit of the score — one that many cities tout on their websites.
“It’s a powerful tool that business communities use. It’s a nice check list of things we need to be focused on,” said Courtney Reyes, executive director of One Iowa. “We see that as a jumping off point.”
For many cities, it’s a tool that helps municipalities understand where they stand and tout how welcoming they are to visitors and prospective workforce recruits.
“’What does the city do to advance (diversity, equity, inclusion) efforts?’ It’s a very common question now,” said Stefanie Bowers, LGBTQIA liaison and equity director for Iowa City’s Office of Equity and Human Rights. “When you’re doing interviews … that’s what candidates are asking now.”
The nature of the index and what it measures also lends itself well to tourism in Iowa cities, many of which are realizing the value of being welcoming to people of all stripes and colors.
Think Iowa City, which is funded by hotel/motel taxes, has seen the Municipal Equality Index as one more tool to the recognition Iowa City is receiving for its environment. In November, they were nominated by GayTravel.com for the 2021 Gay Travel Awards among a list of cities including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and San Francisco.
“As we try to attract new visitors to the area, (the award) is something we can definitely point to as we find different niches,” said Nick Pfeiffer, vice president of marketing and communications for Think Iowa City. “It’s something we can really build on and point to.”
The nomination came in part thanks to the levels of web traffic GayTravel.com received on their listing about Iowa City.
Almost three years ago, the Cedar Rapids Tourism Office started focusing on how they could be more LGBTQ inclusive in marketing materials for a broad variety of audiences. Today, they tout Cedar Rapid’s Municipal Equality Index score on their website and small, but visible signs, throughout the city.
“We wanted to make sure people could see themselves reflected in the day-to-day,” said Julie Stow, director of meetings and conventions for Cedar Rapids Tourism.
Small rainbow stickers touting Cedar Rapids as welcoming to LGBTQ people — something advocates said can make a difference in visibility and signaling — are something the Cedar Rapids Tourism Office has promoted on businesses around the city.
“It’s one thing to have a sticker on the front of your business. It’s another thing to experience the authenticity of the business in our community,” she said.
A ‘dramatic reversal’
Iowa’s scores, which have gradually grown to include more cities since it started, have always been in an above-average range due to credit for laws that have protected LGBTQ people at the state level.
In 2007, Iowa added class protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to Civil Rights Act. In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to legalize same-sex marriage, then the third state in the country to do so, paved the legal groundwork for decisions that followed in many other states.
But now, the positive message sent by the high scores is somewhat negated by the message the Iowa Legislature sends each year, advocates say. Oakley called the last few years of the Legislature “brutal” for LGBTQ residents.
“Iowa is unique in this sense of being a protected state seeing these trends,” she said. “I can’t think of another state that’s had as dramatic of a reversal.”
Though bills being introduced in Iowa largely mirror bills being introduced by socially conservative Republicans in states across the Midwest and South, few others already have the kind of legal protections that Iowa has had for 14 years.
Before, “we were ahead of the curve,” said Reyes.
Now, she said members of the community are faced with the repercussions of a faction in the Legislature she said is “trying to erase our existence.”
In a state with slow population growth, that damage can be measured in dollars and cents to Iowa’s economy — far beyond the minorities that directly benefit from increased equity and inclusion.
“Cities need to do well and make money to thrive,” Reyes said. “It impacts our economy when we can’t recruit and retain incredible talent to the state. That’s hard to do with harmful policies introduced in the state legislature.”
Even for those who don’t identify on the spectrum, the score is a helpful proxy. While the scores cannot measure the lived experience of residents, they can often point them in the right direction.
“Lots of folks use the score as a proxy to whether the city is welcoming,” said Oakley. “People who are different know they’ll feel welcome, even if they’re not queer.”
In October, the city of Cedar Rapids filled a newly-created, full time position to lead diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
“Every person is entitled to proper, equal treatment. But we also want to make sure we're taking advantage of diversity of our community,” said Jeff Pomeranz, city manager of Cedar Rapids. “We make better decisions when we listen to others and they feel like they have a significant role within the organization. There’s better decision making for all. We want to make sure we're listening as a strength.”
“What’s important is making sure LGBTQ people have a seat at the table,” Oakley said.
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