STARKVILLE – Gay and lesbian rights advocates found an unlikely ally this week in this Northeast Mississippi university town.
Starkville’s Board of Aldermen unanimously approved without comment a resolution Tuesday promoting diversity of many kinds, including “gender identity” and “sexual orientation,” along with strong statements denouncing discrimination of many categories of residents, including gays and lesbians.
The resolution, approved for the board’s consent agenda by Starkville Vice Mayor and Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins, is the first of its kind passed by a governing body in the state. It was quickly approved alongside other agenda items.
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver said he didn’t think much about the language in the city-approved document pledging a welcoming community of diversity, a place people of all backgrounds, perspectives, religions and sexual orientation can feel comfortable as themselves.
“I’m surprised that this is that big of a deal,” Carver said Wednesday. “We had a search for a police chief going on last night.”
The resolution has commonalities with others passed in much larger metropolitan cities, such as Atlanta and Dallas. A common theme among them is behind-the- scenes support from the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. civil rights organization advocating on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
While Starkville’s resolution is essentially symbolic, gay rights advocates believe a Mississippi city passing a formal expression of opinion supporting equality among all residents is a step in the right direction.
“It signals to the entire community that it’s OK to be who you are,” said Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s legal counsel for state and local advocacy.
Currently, neither socially conservative Mississippi nor the federal government offers legal protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation related to employment decisions in the private sector. A bill offering such protections passed the U.S. Senate in November by a two-thirds majority but remains idle in the U.S. House of Representatives.
University of Mississippi associate law professor Michèle Alexandre, who has a civil rights textbook expected to publish this year, said Starkville’s resolution sends a message that not all deep-South communities oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians.
“The city is trying to signal to everyone and to courts norms of discrimination around sexual orientation and gender identity are changing,” Alexandre said. “This is a pronouncement against a societal ill that divides the whole country.”