For years lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents of Huntington and their allies drove to Columbus or Charleston to celebrate Pride Month. This year, Huntington recognized the month of LGBT awareness by hosting its second annual Pride Picnic.
It's part of a LGBT-inclusion campaign spearheaded by the city’s mayor, Stephen Williams. At the event, 20 vendors and exhibitors set up tents with local goods, resource materials and rainbow flags. College students from the Marshall University radio station played Dolly Parton and Lady GaGa on loudspeakers. Hundreds of Huntington residents munched on free hot dogs and slaw. The event was family-friendly, and kids played in a sprinkler nearby.
The Pride Picnic is one product of Huntington’s recent efforts to improve conditions for LGBT people in the community. Jacqui Lewis, a Huntington resident, attended the picnic with her fiance, Bernice Miller.
"We were here last year for the first and this year is better. More people and we have all the booths and everything. My friends from across the country say, 'You have gay day in West Virginia? I can’t believe it!'" Lewis said.
Huntington’s campaign for a more inclusive community started around 2014, when the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy organization in the U.S., gave Huntington a low rating on the Municipal Equality Index, an annual score given to municipalities to measure their LGBT inclusivity. The rating tracks local governments’ actions and policies related to LGBT inclusion, such as prohibiting discrimination in housing or employment, appointing LGBT liaisons to the mayor’s office or police department, and making public statements supporting LGBT rights.
Huntington’s 2014 score was just a 45 out of 100.
"I looked at it, and I was sick to my stomach, and I was ashamed. I was ashamed. So I thought, the city that I love is better than that. I said look at this, this isn’t acceptable. Find out what we have to do to start improving our scores," Williams said.
Huntington has made big strides since 2013. The city council unanimously passed a non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2015, Mayor Williams appointed a new LGBT Advisory Committee. The next year, Huntington launched an ‘Open To All’ campaign recognizing local businesses committed to celebrating diversity and inclusion.
Justin Murdock, co-chair of the Mayor’s LGBT Advisory Committee, witnessed how the Human Rights Campaign’s scoring system motivated Williams.
“He’s an ex-Marshall football player, just a real competitive guy all around," Murdock said of the mayor. "Not just in this, but in everything he does, he says, I don't want to follow what Charleston is doing, I don’t even want to follow what Lexington or Columbus are doing. I want Huntington to lead the way.”
Xavier Persad, an attorney at the Human Rights Campaign, pointed out the significance of Huntington’s action: "In a state like West Virginia, where there are no state-level LGBTQ inclusive non-discrimination protections, when a city council passes employment, housing, and public accommodation protections that includes everyone in a community, those are the only protections available to make sure that LGBTQ residents aren’t fired from their jobs or denied housing."
Jan Rader, Huntington’s openly gay fire chief, attended the Pride Picnic with her partner and her dog.
"Without Mayor Williams’ leadership, this wouldn’t be happening." Rader said, adding, "It’s important for people to be who they are and to not feel threatened by being themselves. It took me a long time to be comfortable in my own skin. ... People in the LGBTQ community still have to worry about basic human rights from time to time, and that’s not good."
In addition to his record as a Marshall University football player, Williams is also a former investment banker. He emphasized that creating LGBT-friendly policies in a region where cities are competing for residents and business makes economic sense.
Research suggests that tolerance is an important factor in stimulating a region’s economic growth. Economist Richard Florida has published research on the role of tolerance in economic development, finding that tolerance and openness attracts more highly skilled workers, encourages entrepreneurship and raises regional wages.
While it might be too early to measure the economic impacts of LGBT-friendly city policies in Huntington, the city scored a 95 in 2017 on the Human Rights Campaign’s index. That’s the same score as Berkeley, California. Last year Charleston, West Virginia scored a 67. Parkersburg scored a 20.
"Very simply," Williams said, "we can’t afford to say we’re only taking certain people. Frankly in this part of the country, if we’re LGBT-inclusive and folks find that this an area they can come and be accepted and live their life, come on down to Huntington. If Huntington, WV can do it, certainly everyone else can. At the very least in Appalachia.”
Next year, he hopes Huntington can earn a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign on LGBT inclusion -- and maybe, it will be the ticket to jumpstarting Huntington’s economy.