BY STEVE ROTHAUS
Just in time for gay pride week, the nation's largest LGBT-rights group has awarded Miami Beach a perfect score on its 2013 Municipal Equality Index — five months after Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign omitted the city from the annual ranking.
After self-submitting its own survey answers, Miami Beach scored 100 points on HRC’s list of 291 major American cities. In addition, the city picked up 12 bonus points for such things as paying federal taxes on health insurance for employees’ domestic partners and having openly gay elected or appointed leaders, said Thomas Barker, chairman of Miami Beach’s GLBT Business Enhancement Committee.
“We didn’t want to take our 100 percent and be satisfied. We wanted to be sure the rest of the country and the rest of the world knew that Miami Beach has gone above and beyond to ensure equality for LGBT residents and visitors,” Barker said.
Miami Beach was initially left off the index because the city didn’t fit the judging criteria, according to Cathryn Oakley, HRC legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy and the author of the report.
“We here at HRC have a way to select all the cities to be rated,” Oakley said. Ranked were the 50 state capitals, 150 largest U.S. cities, the three largest cities in each state, cities that were home to a state’s largest university and cities with the highest percentage of same-sex couples, based on 2010 Census data.
Florida cities that made the initial cut: Cape Coral (awarded 10 points), Fort Lauderdale (77), Hialeah (58), Hollywood (54), Jacksonville (25), Miami (67), Miami Shores (56), Oakland Park (85), Orlando (79), Pembroke Pines (43), Port St. Lucie (0), St. Petersburg (66) Tallahassee (84), Tampa (89) and Wilton Manors (82).
Miami Beach LGBT leaders flipped out when they discovered their city — considered among the world’s most popular gay destinations — was not on the HRC list.
“It was amazing that they left off Miami Beach,” said Barker, adding that the Business Enhancement Committee immediately contacted HRC to find out why.
HRC told Miami Beach it could self-submit answers if it wanted to be ranked.
“We had to do all the research ourselves and provide it to HRC in order to be scored,” Barker said. “We discovered as we were pulling together the information that not only should Miami Beach score 100 percent but it should also score another 12 bonus points.”
HRC’s official rankings only include the first 100 points. Twenty five other cities across the United States also had perfect 100 scores, Oakley said.
Barker points out, however, that when the bonus points are included, Miami Beach ranks No. 2 nationally, behind Philadelphia.
“It’s exciting to see all the hard work pay off,” he said. “We've done a lot of work with the Miami Beach Commission and the administration to pass legislation to help make this score a possibility.”
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine will be “special guest” Thursday night at a celebratory HRC presentation to be held at Miami Beach Botanical Garden. Levine, elected mayor last November, declines to take credit for the Beach’s perfect score.
“The credit goes to the shoulders of the people who went before me. The previous government,” Levine said. His predecessor, Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, established the Business Enhancement Committee during her first term in office.
The celebration becomes an unofficial kickoff party for Miami Beach Gay Pride week, which culminates with a parade along Ocean Drive on April 13.
Miami Beach’s work is not over, though. HRC’s 2014 third-annual rankings will be released in November and once again the city will likely have to self-submit to be included, Oakley said.
This year, the grading criteria will change and Miami Beach will need to update a critical policy in order to again score 100, without the bonus points: “Trans-inclusive healthcare benefits will be mandatory next year,” Oakley said.
Barker expects Miami Beach will soon provide full healthcare benefits for transgender employees.
“We want to make sure that if there are any employees who want to transition that they have the coverage to make it happen,” he said. “We’ll be the first city in the state, if not the country, to have this.”
Oakley is confident the Beach will make it happen in time for the 2014 rankings: “If I learned anything from dealing with Miami Beach in this project, they are not willing to be anything less than No. 1.”
IF YOU GO
Miami Beach’s GLBT Business Enhancement Committee will celebrate the city’s perfect score on the HRC Municipal Equality Index with a public party 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr. Cocktails and wine provided by Brown Forman Beverages, a company that received a 100 score in HRC's Corporate Equality Index. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.