Savannah expands protections for LGBT residents

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The Savannah City Council expanded its protections for LGBT people on Thursday, becoming one of just a handful of jurisdictions in the state to add “gender identity” to its non-discrimination ordinance.

The unanimous vote also ensured that LGBT people could not be discriminated against when applying for jobs, permits or licenses with the city, and codified administrative policy concerning sexual orientation into the ordinance, according to Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality's executive director.

LGBT activists applauded the unanimous vote, which capped months of discussion between LGBT activists and city officials, according to WJCL.

“As a member of Georgia Equality’s Board of Directors, Board Chairman of First City Network, and a long-time resident of Savannah, I am delighted to see city leaders taking proactive steps to protect members of the LGBT community here in Savannah,” Billy Wooten said in a press release issue by Georgia Equality. 

“While there is still much work to do, the passage of this ordinance represents one more step toward full equality and inclusion for Savannah’s LGBT community,” Wooten added.

Some 59 jurisdictions across Georgia offer non-discrimination policies that protect LGBT people but Savannah becomes just the 14th in the state to include “gender identity” in its protections, according to Georgia Equality. 

Two Savannah-area cities – Pooler and Port Wentworth – are among the municipalities that do. Others include Atlanta, Athens/Clarke County, Cleveland, Decatur, Doraville, East Point, Griffin, North High Shoals, Union City, Oak Park and Berkeley Lake.

In 2013, the City of Atlanta affirmed that “gender identity” is expressly included in city codes impacted by its 15-year-old non-discrimination ordinance. In Georgia, activists have repeatedly proposed a non-discrimination bill that would protect the state's LGBT employees, though it's failed to gain traction in the state legislature despite bipartisan support.

Georgia Equality applauded Thursday's move by the Savannah City Council, calling it an important step in making LGBT people “feel safe and protected.”

“Cities all across our nation and state understand that these types of employment protections are simply the right thing to do. Measures like the one passed in Savannah today make it clear to city employees that the city of Savannah wants to attract and retain the best employees without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity,” Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality's executive director, said in a prepared statement.

City spokesperson Bret Bell told WJCL that Thursday's vote helped codify the approach the city already takes with its LGBT residents.

“What this is going to do is just codify our current practice that we do not discriminate based on anything,” Bell said. “We would never intend to discriminate against any class of individuals and we want to make sure that's in writing as well.”

We've reached out to Bell for comment and will update the post with any response.

The city added health benefits for domestic partners in 2010, though the county in which it sits – Chatham – stumbled over the same issue earlier this year. In 2014, Savannah flopped in HRC's Municipal Equality Index with a score of 18, among the lowest of cities in the state. 

In November, two gay candidates lost their bids for the City Council.

UPDATE | A spokesperson for the City of Savannah, Bret Bell, told Project Q that the ordinance approved on Thursday impacts city employment, permitting and licensing. The LGBT-inclusive ordinance codifies a resolution the council passed years earlier that included “sexual orientation” but not “gender identity” among a list of protected categories for city employees. The ordinance approved this week also added a non-discrimination policy that includes LGBT protections to the city's permitting and licensing process, which did not exist prior to Thursday's vote.

According to the ordinance:

The Mayor and Aldermen find that discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or disability is inconsistent with the Constitution, laws and policies of the United States, state and city, and that it is in the public interest to establish specific policies to prohibit such discrimination. 

(Photo: An attendee enjoys the 12th Annual Savannah Pride Festival)

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