You'll Never Guess Which State is 'Most-Improved' on LGBT Rights

When Delaware became the 11th state to allow same-sex marriage in July, the news garnered seemingly little surprise. However, a closer look reveals the state has taken great strides since five years ago, when it didn't even have complete anti-discrimination laws.

Often, "most-improved" articles like this one pick an outrageous city, county, state or whatever else and attempt to make a compelling argument as to why that entity has gained more ground than other, more reasonable ones. But, in the case of LGBT friendliness, it's hard to get behind cities such as Knoxville or Little Rock, where state laws often override any real chance of equality.

Lately, for example, Salt Lake City has gotten hype for being the “most improved” in gay-friendliness, including its No. 1 rank in The Advocate’s “Gayest Cities in America, 2012.” But, the criteria used for that list are faulty — with points awarded for things such as nude yoga classes and WNBA teams — and Utah as a whole is still not gay-friendly. A look at Human Rights Campaign's 2012 Municipal Equality Index shows that all of Salt Lake City's 87 points come from the city or county level, not the state. Utah has no non-discrimination laws in employment, housing or public accommodations at the state level, and does not allow same-sex marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships.

Yet Delaware, one of the legitimately most improved states, has received much less attention. That's possibly because it's near the New England area, where same-sex marriage is legal in all six states — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont — five of which occurred between 2003 and 2009, and where, according to The Williams Institute's Census Snapshot: 2010, all states rank in the top 20 with between 5.73 and 8.36 same-sex couples per 1,000 households. But Delaware isn't in New England, and its efforts shouldn't be overlooked.

In 2007, an unprecedented four LGBT-supportive bills were introduced in the Delaware house or senate, but by 2008, only SB 57, which included unmarried, straight, and gay couples in the state's domestic violence statute, passed. The others, which covered topics including same-sex partner benefits and the prohibition of sexual orientation discrimination in various areas, did not.

After the 2008 election, however, Democrats gained control of the house, while the senate and governor's seat remained Democrat-dominated. In 2009, several bills similar to those that failed in 2008 were signed into law, including a sexual orientation anti-discrimination bill, a bill that allowed hospital visitation from same-gender significant others, and one that solidified the adoption and parenting rights of gay and other second parents. Despite the momentum, a house bill asking for same-sex domestic partner benefits for state employees still did not pass.

And, although John Buchheit became the first openly gay mayor in Delaware in 2011, when openly gay Democrats Andy Staton and Marie Mayor ran for seats in the state senate and house, respectively, in 2012, neither of them won. Staton's loss, because he raised $105,000 — more than any other first-time political hopeful in a Delaware primary election campaign — and was running in a newly created district that included gay-friendly Rehoboth Beach, especially came as a surprise.

But in Delaware, political ideologies vary widely based on where you live. The state is divided into only three counties, with New Castle County in the north holding 55% of the population. Although New Castle has not voted for the Republican candidate in a presidential election since 1988, Kent and Sussex counties did in 1992, 2000 and 2004. So, Rehoboth Beach, located in southernmost Sussex County, struggles to be as gay-friendly politically as it is culturally, as evidenced by its score of 53 in HRC's 2012 Municipal Equality Index (something that may change once millennials begin to take office). Dover, in Kent County, seems to have the same issue — its score of 41 included zero points at the county level and revealed that Dover didn't report its 2010 hate crime statistics to the FBI and doesn't have domestic partner health benefits, among other things. You'd think that cities in a state with legal same-sex marriage would have higher ratings, but it's not yet the case.

It's telling that Sen. Karen Peterson, who was elected in 2002, didn't come out as gay until a May speech before the chamber voted to legalize same-sex marriage. The move made her the first openly LGBT legislator in Delaware. In June, further suggesting a shift in attitude, gender identity was added to Delaware's anti-discrimination law with the goal of protecting transgender people, making it one of just 16 states with such a law.

So, although there's still work to do in individual cities, Delaware has become a leader for the LGBT community in the U.S. and is certainly deserving of a most improved title.