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How well do Coast cities treat their LGBTQ residents?

Scott and Schyler Wiecek of Bay St. Louis walk with their son, Remy, 3, during a No Hate in Our State rally in Bay St. Louis in May. Bay St. Louis was named the second-best city for LGBTQ residents to live and work in the state by the Human Rights Campaign.
Scott and Schyler Wiecek of Bay St. Louis walk with their son, Remy, 3, during a No Hate in Our State rally in Bay St. Louis in May. Bay St. Louis was named the second-best city for LGBTQ residents to live and work in the state by the Human Rights Campaign. File

If you’re a member of the LGBT community and living in Bay St. Louis, then you picked the right Coast city to call home. Sort of.

The Human Rights Campaign recently released its 2016 Municipality Equality Index. The analysis looked at 506 cities from every state and examined “how inclusive municipal laws, policies and services are for the people who live and work there.”

The LGBT civil rights organization developed a point system that ranked cities based on non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement and the city leadership’s public position on equality. The top score was 100, indicating a city is an exemplary place for people to live and work.

Nine Mississippi cities were analyzed — four from the Coast, three that are home to universities, the state capital and Southaven in north Mississippi.

Bay St. Louis received 34 points from the Municipality Equality Index, the most of any Coast city. Biloxi received only 18 points and Gulfport trailed with 16 points.

Mayor Les Fillingame said it’s no surprise Bay St. Louis scored the highest marks on the Coast. He said he believes the city has a large LGBT community for its size compared with other Coast cities because of the influence of local artists and its proximity to New Orleans.

“We have an entrenched traditional art community,” Fillingame said. “With the arts always seems to come the expanded awareness of the world and each other.”

City leaders and business owners, he said, work with the community and with tourists to ensure the Bay is welcoming for all people, especially those in the LGBT community.

“We are one of those very unique communities (in Mississippi) where discrimination is not tolerated,” he said. “I am very proud of our community and proud to be a part of it because of that.”

Why Bay St. Louis ‘sort of’ did well

The only city to receive a passing mark was Jackson, the capital, at 71.

Though Bay St. Louis does not compare to Jackson, the small town’s score was double that of Gulfport, Mississippi’s second-largest city.

Many Bay residents and business owners earlier this year rallied against HB 1523, the so-called “religious freedom bill.” Most shops have signs in their storefronts that say “ALL Welcome Here.” The city, Fillingame said, embraces every person and every culture.

Bay St. Louis received 30 out of 30 possible points for non-discrimination laws. No other South Mississippi city received points in this section. HRC gave points to the Bay because its ordinances forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in regard to employment, housing and public accommodations. The city, however, received zero points in the municipality-as-employer section, which examined if its LGBT employees were offered equivalent benefits and protections.

Bay St. Louis also earned points for the leadership’s public position on equality and leaders’ pro-equality legislative or policy efforts. The City Council in 2014 passed a bill that protected residents against discrimination for sexual orientation. The council voted 6-0 in 2016 to reaffirm the bill.

Despite a low score, Fillingame said, he thinks the city is very inclusive of its gay community. He said he can’t think of anything else the city could do to welcome people.

“If we saw anything that was making our community less inviting for anyone, we would address that,” he said. “The welcome mat is out for any and all.”

Bay St. Louis received zero points in the municipal-services category, meaning there is no human rights commission and no liaison in the Mayor’s Office, and there aren’t specific anti-bullying school policies. No Coast cities received points in this section.

Ocean Springs in last place

Ocean Springs received the lowest score on the Coast — 2 points out of 100. It received those points for the leadership’s public position on equality. Mayor Connie Moran has been an outspoken supporter of the LGBT community in Mississippi. She and Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich were publicly and adamantly against HB 1523, which they said threatened equality in the state.

Moran stole the show from pop singer Belinda Carlisle in April at an anti-HB 1523 press conference at the IP Casino Resort in Biloxi, calling the bill “hateful and un-Christian.”

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant but blocked by federal Judge Carlton Reeves just hours before it was set to take effect July 1, would have allowed businesses and public officials to cite religious beliefs as grounds to refuse service to LGBT people.

“This is embarrassing, it’s humiliating and it keeps Mississippi spiraling downward,” Moran said at the press conference.

The mayor was the only reason Ocean Springs scored any points, though. It received zero points in four of five categories.

Gulfport police trained to serve all

Biloxi and Gulfport received points for the South Mississippi AIDS Task Force, which provides services to people living with HIV and AIDS. They were the only Coast cities to report hate-crime statistics to the FBI for 2014, the year the HRC analyzed for its report.

The report also looked to see if police departments staffed liaisons who work in part with the community. No Coast cities got points in that category.

The Gulfport Police Department, which serves the Coast’s largest city, does not have an LGBT liaison, but officials said their staff is trained and equipped to work with every member of the community in positive ways.

Police Chief Leonard Papania said every officer is trained to serve all who need police help, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.

Sgt. Joshua Bromen, the department’s public information officer, said the idea of a liaison is a good one and he would like to meet with the city’s LGBT community to assess their needs. He said the department has brought in specialized personnel when it was deemed needed by the community.

“We are always looking for new ways to better serve our community,” he said.

He said some police force members identify as LGBT and they work alongside fellow officers every day to protect residents’ safety.

“We treat every person the same in Gulfport,” he said. “As an agency, we are ready and willing to serve all members of our community.”

Molly Kester, a transgender Coast resident and president of the Mississippi Rainbow Center, said Coast law enforcement are helpful, tolerant and generally accepting of the LGBT community.

She said she’s worked with officers at the Harrison County Law Enforcement Training Academy to help educate officials on how to treat a future police officer who was transgender. Kester said Friday she doesn’t know of any transgender officers on the Coast.

“They (police departments) have already taken steps,” she said. “They want to make sure they’re prepared to do it right.”

Low score doesn’t mean low quality of living

Despite failing grades, Kester said she doesn’t believe Coast cities are failing in their treatment of people.

She said she’s always had positive experiences with businesses, police and most residents. She said some people have muttered comments about her as she walked past, but no one has tried to assault or harm her.

“Clearly there’s a different mindset on the Coast” than the rest of the state, she said. “We can’t protect everybody, but by and large, I haven’t had an issue — ever.”

Kester, who travels the state as an activist, said there are transgender men and women living in cities and towns across Mississippi who are happy and living normal lives. Kester said she’s never experienced discrimination anywhere in the state, but she does know it isn’t the case for everyone and that things are not perfect. She’s heard of some people being fired from jobs in towns north of the Coast. She also noted the stabbing death of Hattiesburg resident Dee Whigham in a Jackson County hotel room.

Three violent crimes against transgender women have been reported in South Mississippi the past two years. Whigham, a nurse at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, was killed in July while in town for the Gulf Coast Black Rodeo in Biloxi. Navy seaman Dwanya Hickerson is accused of robbing and stabbing her to death.

George County resident Josh Vallum, a member of the Latin Kings street gang, admitted to brutally killing his girlfriend, 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson. The May 30, 2015, murder of the Alabama teen may be the first federal hate crime with a transgender victim.

Vallum claims he did not know Mercedes was transgender when they were dating.

A transgender woman was critically wounded in a July 24 shooting in Moss Point, former Police Chief Art McClung told the Sun Herald. The woman, whose identity was not released for safety reasons, was shot repeatedly. McClung said the shooting was reported to the FBI as a possible hate crime.

Kester said Coast communities, businesses and police departments are forging a path forward to make the Gulf Coast a great place to live for its LGBT members.

The nonprofit Mississippi Rainbow Center serves as a resource for the LGBT community and their allies. The center’s website says it “provides education, outreach and community involvement in order to foster acceptance, equality and unity.”

Justin Mitchell: 228-604-0705, @Journalism_J