Metro Weekly

Clarksdale, Mississippi, passes LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance

Ordinance, backed by mayor, prohibits discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment

Delta Avenue in Clarksdale, Miss. – Photo: Fredlyfish4, via Wikimedia.

The city of Clarksdale, Miss., has passed a citywide ordinance that prohibits discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, public accommodations, and employment, making it the third city in the state to pass such a law.

Jackson, the state capitol, and the small town of Magnolia, Miss., previously passed similar ordinances. In fact, when Mississippi passed HB 1523, a law allowing people to refuse to provide goods or services to LGBTQ people by citing their “sincerely held principles,” pro-LGBTQ forces argued that Jackson’s ordinance could be undermined by the new law.

Although a federal judge had previously ruled that the law’s provisions violated both the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the conservative 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they had not suffered harm from a law that had yet to go into effect. The law eventually was enacted in October of last year.

However, if an LGBTQ person is dscriminated against in Clarksdale, a city known for its tourism industry and connection to blues music, pro-LGBTQ forces could potentially have cause to bring a new lawsuit to overturn HB 1523.

Because Mississippi is one of 30 states that lack comprehensive statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ residents, it has been left up to local governments to pass their own laws.

The push for such laws, particularly in Southern states where LGBTQ people have few allies in Republican-dominated legislatures, has come from Project One America, an initiative by the Human Rights Campaign aimed at advancing LGBTQ equality in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas.

“Clarksdale’s leaders have taken an important step forward by passing a fully-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance,” Rob Hill, HRC’s Mississippi state director, said in a statement. “Now, Clarksdale will join Jackson and Magnolia as the cities in Mississippi that have taken concrete steps to support their LGBTQ citizens. Now, it is time for other communities in our state to follow in their footsteps and pass policies to protect all Mississippians from bias and discrimination.”

The ordinance also represents a significant step forward for a city where, just five years ago, openly gay mayoral candidate Marco McMillan was murdered.

The suspect in that case, Lawrence Reed, initially invoked a “gay panic” defense, claiming that McMillan had attempted to rape him. Reed was later found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. 

Mayor Chuck Espy, a Democrat, plans to sign the ordinance into law as soon as possible.

“Clarksdale is a city that is welcoming and inclusive for all its residents, including our LGBTQ friends and neighbors,” Espy said in a statement. “We are glad to affirm this spirit of diversity and openness with this fully-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance. Thank you to the Board for standing up for fairness, equality and for our community.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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