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Grass-Roots Efforts Spur Culture Shift On LGBTQ Issues In Arizona

When Maddie Adelman moved to Phoenix in the late 1990s, she struggled to build a community.

"It was hard to find my people. There were not a lot of people talking about LGBT issues at the time," Adelman, 50, remembered.

Laurie Provost had been working with LGBTQ youth in the area but was looking for opportunities in activism.

The women met at a coffee shop in 2004, bonding over Adelman's blue lunchbox emblazoned with the logo for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Adelman had recently founded a Phoenix chapter of the national advocacy group.

Provost and Adelman hit it off immediately and, over more than a decade, dived into local LGBTQ advocacy together, serving on city boards and advocating for policies like the city's 2013 nondiscrimination ordinance. Through GLSEN, which is pronounced "glisten," they also partnered with area school districts to help teachers, students and administrators work on issues like bullying and discrimination against LGBTQ kids.

Grass-roots efforts like Adelman's and Provost's have brought about a culture shift on LGBTQ issues in their community. This year, Phoenix, Tucson and Tempe received a perfect score for inclusivity in the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index.

Adelman said city leaders in Phoenix have made LGTBQ rights a priority, "because the people of the city have appropriately demanded that they do so."

Adelman views the success on LGBTQ issues in Phoenix as a template for change throughout Arizona, which Adelman calls a "patchwork" of protections.

Outside of the metro area, some rural communities have also embraced LGBTQ friendly policies like Bisbee, which was the first Arizona town to legalize civil unions for same sex couples.

Click a point on the map to see the Municipal Equality Index (MEI) score.

"Where we are going to see the most change is the local level," Adelman said. "I'm dedicating my time to working with individual schools, individual cities and seeing if we can knit them together."

But both women say that statewide, Arizona lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to legal protections for LGBTQ people. The state lacks comprehensive statewide employment nondiscrimination laws, and state law even prohibits schools from, among other things, portraying " homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style."

"I feel like I am constantly looking: What's the latest bill state lawmakers are writing?" Provost said. "What are we going to have to combat? Who am I going to have to call?"

Across the country, more than half of LGBTQ people say they or an LGBTQ friend or family member have personally experienced threats, sexual harassment or violence because of their sexuality or gender identity. Nearly 1 in 5 say they have personally experienced discrimination because of their sexuality or gender identity in the areas of employment, housing or interaction with the police. Those numbers come from a new pollby NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

But when it comes to local political representation for LGBTQ people, the tone is markedly more positive. The poll shows that nearly two-thirds say their local government represents the views of people like them somewhat or very well. In the West, that number is even higher — nearly three quarters.

According to Neil Giuliano, "the local level is the gateway for equality." Giuliano knows firsthand; he served four terms as Republican mayor of Tempe and came out publicly while he was in office in the mid-1990s.

"There were about 38 openly gay elected officials in the country," he recalled. As mayor, Giuliano took pro-LGBTQ stances that angered some of his constituents — even leading to a recall vote in 2001, which he won easily.

"It was very divisive for the community from an emotional standpoint. We went through that and came out much stronger and much better on the other end," he said.

Giuliano went on to lead national LGBTQ advocacy groups GLAAD and the San Francisco AIDS Institute.

Arizona has come a long way since he was first elected, Giuliano said, but someone's ability to live openly is still very dependent on the zip code.

"I could be married on Friday and then fired from my job the next week," he said.

He said progress in political representation, especially in a conservative state like Arizona, comes from the bottom up: passing ordinances and getting more LGBTQ people elected to local office. 

"LGBT people, especially on a local level, have been much more fully integrated into the life of their community," Giuliano said. "They're neighbors, and friends, people at church."

That was also the story for Daniel Hernandez, who got his start in politics by running for a Tucson school board seat at age 21.

In local politics, "it didn't matter that I was openly gay," Hernandez said. "But what mattered was the work I was doing to represent and the relationships that I had built."

Hernandez said that over time, his constituents, including some who were Catholic and more socially conservative, became more receptive to LGBTQ issues. He said that community support gave him room to make reforms in school policy like protections for gender identity.

Now Hernandez is a Democratic state representative. It's a different political reality for Hernandez in the Arizona Legislature, where he recently helped launch the state's first LGBTQ caucus. There have been openly gay elected officials in Arizona for many years, but Hernandez said the four-member caucus adds a new level of organized support for legislative protections for LGBTQ people.

"There's a point where the stuff happening at the local level reaches a nexus where it has to have an impact statewide," Hernandez said.

He points to a religious freedom bill passed by state lawmakers in 2014. After huge backlash, then-Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed it.

State Rep. Tony Navarrete, another member of the four person LGBTQ caucus, said there’s no set agenda for the upcoming session yet.

Instead, the plan is to “listen to what the community is telling us … the organizations that work with LGBT youth, adults, folks with health issues, the homeless,” Navarrete said, “There are so many LGBT folks who are disproportionately impacted in different areas.”

Recent efforts to make broader policy changes in Arizona like eliminating the so-called “ No Promo Homo” law haven’t gained traction at the Legislature. And Navarrete acknowledges that turning local momentum into statewide change may still be slow going.

"Whether we get it passed this next coming session or whether we get it passed two years from now, we are developing a road map of how we are going to make sure that Arizona is more inclusive," he said.

But Navarrete said the fact that a road map is beginning to take shape — no matter how winding — is progress.

Will Stone grew up with the sounds of public radio. As a senior field correspondent, he strives to tell the same kind of powerful stories that got him into the business — whether that means trudging through some distant corner of the Sonoran Desert or uncovering an unknown injustice right down the street. Since joining the KJZZ newsroom in 2015, he has covered political scandals, fights over the future of energy, and efforts to care for some of Arizona’s most vulnerable communities. His pieces have also aired on national programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here & Now and Marketplace. Before coming to KJZZ, he reported for public radio stations in Nevada and Connecticut. Stone received his degree in English literature from Haverford College, where he also wrote about the arts and culture scene in Philadelphia. After graduating, he interned at NPR West in Culver City, California, where he learned from some of the network’s veteran reporters and editors. When he doesn’t have a mic in hand, Stone enjoys climbing mountains, running through his central Phoenix neighborhood and shamelessly promoting his cat, Barry.