Last edited: December 08, 2004

Who’s the Best, Legally Speaking?

Southern Voice (glbt), November 9, 2001
1095 Zonolite Road, Atlanta, GA 30306

By Lisa Keen

The top five states for gays in the Voice’s legal analysis were Vermont, D.C., Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island. On the other end of the spectrum were Kansas, Alabama, Virginia, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

When it comes to the best state for gay men or lesbians to live, it might not come as a surprise—Vermont.

The worst? Oklahoma.

The rankings come from a Voice analysis of laws that concern gays in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

For gays in D.C., life couldn’t get much better—the city ranks second. Meanwhile, the city’s neighbor to the immediate south, Virginia, ranks third from the bottom, while Maryland falls firmly above the middle point at 18th. The top seven jurisdictions are in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast, including the top-ranked Vermont.

"Vermont is the hands-down winner," said Lorri Jean, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. "It’s more than the sentimental favorite because of the civil unions law. Vermont has been way ahead for years."

In addition to having the nation’s first and only law giving comprehensive recognition of same-sex relationships—through passage of its landmark "civil unions" legislation—Vermont, which scored 97 out of 100 points, has a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, and union practices.

Vermont was among the first of the few states to recognize second-parent adoptions by gay couples.

Oklahoma scored a -92, putting it dead last in the rankings, based on the Voice analysis.

The Sooner State has no statewide laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or recognizing gay relationships or families; and it has a law that makes sodomy a felony for same-sex couples, while not penalizing heterosexual couples.

Oklahoma also excludes sexual orientation from its hate crime law and has a law prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages.

A broader picture

While the analysis provides an easy way to gauge states and their legal approach to gays, the rankings also provide a sense of legal protections across the country.

For instance, while only 11 states and D.C. have enacted civil rights laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination, those 11 states and D.C. comprise 24 percent of the U.S. population, suggesting that almost one in four people live in states covered by such laws.

Of the remaining 39 states without gay-friendly statewide civil rights laws, 26 have at least some cities and counties which have local ordinances prohibiting bias based on sexual orientation, including Atlanta and New Orleans.

Adding in the populations that those local laws cover, nearly 47 percent of the U.S. population lives in areas where sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited.

Thirteen states have neither statewide nor local laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the newspaper’s analysis.

Fourteen states still have laws prohibiting sodomy for same-sex couples. In a few of those states, the enforceability of the sodomy laws is in question or under active challenge, but the laws are still on the books for about 32 percent of the U.S. population.

And by averaging the scores of the 50 states and D.C., the U.S. would come in with a score of -12.9, without taking into account federal laws that affect gays.

That score suggests that Iowa, ranking at 23rd and with a score of -11, comes the closest to representing the general legal climate today for gays in the United States.

Beyond the numbers

But even the rankings can be deceiving, according to gay activists in states both at the top and bottom of the scale.

Vermont, while ranked at the top of the list, still could do more for gays, said Virginia Renfrew, co-liaison of the Vermont Coalition of Lesbian & Gay Rights.

"I do think that Vermont is one of the best states to live in for gays and lesbians," Renfrew said. "We still have work to do for our youth. The schools are not all safe for them.

"[T]here is homophobia in our state and police do not always recognize a hate crime against gays and lesbians," Renfrew added. "We have much work left to do for the transgender community. They have no laws protecting them."

But, she added, "Legally, I believe that we have all the laws we need from gay rights to adoption to civil unions."

Only three states have laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity—Rhode Island, California and Minnesota, according to the newspaper’s analysis.

Across the South, which includes eight of the 12 worst states in which to be gay, legally speaking, the scores don’t always reflect the positive changes being made, according to Jo Wyrick, executive director of Equality North Carolina.

The legal climate for gays in North Carolina is "improving," Wyrick said.

While the state is one of few remaining with a sodomy law, which treats the act as a felony, the law "isn’t enforced in some areas," she said, but "it is in others, which creates a real imbalance within the state."

Wyrick said that family issues, like custody, visitation, and adoption, are left to the decision of judges to decide what is in the best interest of the child, and that "we have family courts in some parts of the state that make very LGBT-friendly decisions, and others that don’t."

Behind the scenes

The rankings also fail to show to what extent gay activists have been successful in fending off anti-gay legislation and defending gay-friendly laws.

Florida, for instance, does not have a statewide civil rights law protecting gays, but 41 percent of its population is covered through its local ordinances, many of which have been defended against numerous attacks.

The state ranked 42nd in the newspaper’s analysis.

"As a state, we’ve won a number of battles to pass and keep human rights ordinances and domestic partner policies at the local level," said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida.

Recently, anti-gay opponents failed to garner enough signatures to force a repeal vote on a gay ordinance in Broward County, she said. Miami continues to defend its ordinance as well, Smith added.

But the laws of Florida "as a state, continue to be among the worst in the country," she said.

Because New York City and so many of the state’s large cities and counties have local ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, 72 percent of the state’s population is covered under the laws.

But, despite this success at the local level, the state, which ranked 16th in the analysis, still does not have a statewide law.

"Our progress at the state law level continues to be thwarted by the Republican/Conservative parties’ majority in the state senate," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. "Gerrymandering by both parties has essentially guaranteed that the status quo will not change for the foreseeable future."

And while Foreman said a proposed statewide gay civil rights bill might be "close at hand," he predicted movement on significant family recognition legislation will be "extremely difficult."

In Montana, which ranked 36th, the environment for gays is "outright hostile," said Karl Olson, executive director, of Montana’s PRIDE organization.

During the last session of the legislature, the GOP leader in the state House tried to rescind an executive order from former Gov. Marc Racicot that protected gay state workers.

While that effort "blew up" in the lawmaker’s face, Olson said, "we pay very dearly for even the smallest of victories."

"We do have a few champions," he said, "but not enough yet to tip the balance."

[Note: the complete states chart appears online at the bottom of the article, at]

How they ranked
Below are the rankings of each state and the District of Columbia according to laws in each jurisdiction that are either friendly to gays or restrict the rights of gays. Following the state’s name and ranking is its score (see "Methodology" sidebar, below). The national average was -12.9.

1. Vermont 97
2. Washington, D.C. 92
3. Connecticut 81
4. New Jersey 70
5. Rhode Island 68
6. New Hampshire 66
7. Massachusetts 64
8. Wisconsin 60
9. California 54
10. Hawaii 42
11. Oregon 34
12. Minnesota 24
13. New Mexico 11
14. Washington 9
15. Nevada 8
16. New York 6
17. Wyoming 5

18. Maryland 4
19. Maine 2
20. Ohio -4
21. Illinois -5
22. Delaware -10
23. Iowa -11
24. Texas -18
25. Michigan -19
26. Indiana -20
27. Kentucky -22
28. Arizona -25
29. Nebraska -27
30. Tennessee -30
31. Pennsylvania -33
32. Colorado -35
33. West Virginia -35
34. North Dakota -35
35. South Dakota -37
36. Montana -37
37. Georgia -39
38. Missouri -40
39. Alaska -40
40. Louisiana -61
41. Arkansas -65
42. Florida -67
43. South Carolina -70
44. Utah -77
45. North Carolina -80
46. Idaho -80
47. Kansas -82
48. Alabama -82
49. Virginia -87
50. Mississippi -90
51. Oklahoma -92


Each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia were ranked on a system that assigned points for gay-friendly and anti-gay laws in each.

Points for each state ranged from -100 to 100.

Positive points were awarded to states with pro-gay laws, including statewide laws prohibiting discrimination in employment and other arenas, laws recognizing same-sex relationships or enabling gay couples to share domestic partnership benefits, hate crime laws, and laws and court rulings recognizing parental rights and other family concerns.

Negative points were assigned to states with anti-gay laws in force, including sodomy laws, laws to prevent any recognition of same-sex marriages, and laws or court rulings that prevented recognition of gay parental rights or adoption.

A sodomy law that prohibited only same-sex conduct was scored with more negative points than a law that prohibited both same-sex and heterosexual sodomy. A felony sodomy law deducted more points than a misdemeanor.

A constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage recognition cost a state more points than a law barring such recognition.

Variables were included to give weight to certain protections and penalties that did not fit any of the specific laws examined. For instance, if a state did not have a law prohibiting discrimination in employment, but its governor did issue an executive order protecting state employees from discrimination (and that executive order was still in force), then the state won an additional allotment of points.

In the instance of a tie, the ranking was refined based on protections afforded by local ordinances and on the current governor’s record of support on gay-related matters.

-- Lisa Keen

Unfortunately, the list of states with sodomy laws was taken from Lambda Legal's overly optimistic list. For instance, Michigan is considered by Lambda Legal not to have a sodomy law, completely ignoring case law subsequent to Lambda Legal's case. Other errors are also included so the list should be looked at only as a general guide.

-Bob Summersgill

[Home] [News] [USA]