Task Force Releases New Report: All Politics Is Local

June 27, 1997

Gay rights legislation at the city and county level has advanced at a dramatic pace in the 1990's and makes a major difference in the lives of many gay people, say independent researchers at the University of Florida (UF), in a new report summarizing their book-length study of gay rights laws in the United States.

The report, titled All Politics Is Local: An Analysis of Local Gay Rights Legislation, was released this month by the Policy Institute, the national think tank and policy center on gay rights issues of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), and authored by three University of Florida professors, Dr. Kenneth Wald, Dr. James Button, and Dr. Barbara Rienzo.

The University of Florida researchers intensively studied 126 American communities which had passed gay rights laws or policies as of 1993, and compared them to 125 randomly selected U.S. jurisdictions without such legislation. In addition, the authors did intensive field research in five representative communities to further examine the factors which led to the passage of these laws and to study their impact; the communities were Cincinnati, OH; Iowa City, IA; Philadelphia, PA; Raleigh, NC; and Santa Cruz, CA.

The book-length study on which the NGLTF Report is based is titled Private Lives, Public Conflicts: Battles Over Gay Rights Legislation in American Communities. It was published by Congressional Quarterly Press in February of 1997, and it provides one of the first scholarly examinations ever done of the politics, scope and impact of gay rights laws.

As one of the co-author's of the study, UF political scientist Dr. Kenneth Wald observed, "Although the headlines have been grabbed by national efforts to overturn anti-gay policies or pass gay rights laws, to a large degree the battle for legal protection of gays and lesbians has taken place in the local communities of America. Gay rights laws at the local level now cover one out of every five persons living in the United States."

Factors helpful to the passage of local gay rights laws included: the level of political activation and mobilization of the local gay community, support for gay rights from straight allies, and a population in the city that was racially diverse, younger, and religiously liberal. Another co- author of the NGLTF report, Dr. James Button comments, "These local ordinances signal a new stage in the political emergence of gays and lesbians. In a sense they mark the passage of the gay rights movement from the pursuit of cultural visibility to the enactment of legislative legitemization."

Despite progress in passing local gay rights laws, the Report's authors note that backlash and hostility to gay people persists. They detail the arena of school-based non-discrimination policies as one in which opposition to gay rights remains volatile and charged. A carefully researched chapter in the book, and summarized in the NGLTF Report, evaluates school-based programs addressing sexual orientation. Observes co-author Dr. Barbara Rienzo, "The forces that affect passage of local gay rights laws also help secure programs addressing sexual orientation in schools. A politically active gay community is the key to securing educational reform and support services for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students."

Other findings of the NGLTF Report and the book on which it is based include:

  • The mobilization of the gay community in a locality is the single most important political determinant of the passage of a gay rights law.

  • Seventy-nine of the 157 cities and counties that had gay rights ordinances by 1997 passed them in the 1990's.

  • Gay rights ordinances almost always cover public employment but vary widely in their coverage of private sector employment, housing, public accommodations, hotel and retail centers, and private business contracts with the city or counties.

  • The vast majority of gay rights ordinances do not cover residential homes, religious organizations, credit agencies or banks, and often do not include public schools, universities or small businesses, thereby granting them de facto exemptions.

  • A majority of the public officials surveyed by the authors noted that ordinances were important because they sent a clear message that discrimination was unlawful.

  • The quality of life for gay and lesbian Americans varies significantly between jurisdictions with gay rights laws and those without, most notably regarding access to government programs and services and the responsiveness of public schools to the needs of gay and lesbian students, parents and children.
  • "This study significantly broadens our understanding of the importance of local gay rights laws. It confirms what gay activists have argued for years: we need a more active and politically organized gay rights movement at the local and state level," concluded Urvashi Vaid, Director of NGLTF's Policy Institute.

    Copies of the study may be obtained by calling NGLTF Publications at (202) 332-6483 or by downloading the Report from the NGLTF website at Book copies may be ordered from Congressional Quarterly Press, Customer Service and Fulfillment, Department HCW1, 1414 22nd Street NW, Washington, DC 20037 (800) 638-1710.


    The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.