By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Several years ago, Tony Snell and his husband moved from South Carolina to Milwaukee after Snell’s husband received a position at Milwaukee School of Engineering. Snell continued his advocacy and human rights work in South Carolina, but a conversation with Mayor Tom Barrett prompted him to root his work in Milwaukee.
Today, Snell is the chair of the city’s Equal Rights Commission. The commission along with the Fair Wisconsin, FORGE and other organizations are working to make Milwaukee and by extension Wisconsin, a safe and equitable place for all.
Earlier this week, the City of Milwaukee announced it received a score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2021 Municipality Equality Index. This is the fourth year in a row that Milwaukee has earned a 100.
The Human Rights Campaign is the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization. For the past 10 years, the organization has been ranking cities on how well they include LGBTQ+ rights in their laws, policies and services.
During the press conference, which took place at City Hall, 200 E. Wells St., on Wednesday, Dec. 1. Barrett expressed how proud he was of the work that the Equal Rights Commission has done to make sure that everyone knows the City of Milwaukee is a city with open arms that accepts people as people.
“It doesn’t get much more basic than that,” he said. “We accept people as people, where they are in their lives, and we embrace them because we believe that’s the right thing to do.”
Other cities throughout Wisconsin have joined Milwaukee in achieving a perfect score, Barrett said, including Madison. He expressed his hope that more cities are committed to doing the work to improving their scores.
“The score is a reflection of the city’s many actions to champion LGBTQ+ rights, some of which include adding enforcement mechanisms to the city’s equal rights ordinance, banning conversion therapy, appointing liaisons to the mayor’s office and the Milwaukee Police Department and providing trans inclusive health benefits,” Barrett said.
He noted that the Equal Rights Commission is working to add gender inclusive restrooms to city buildings, include preferred language protection and more.
Shelley Gregory, the strategic project coordinator at FORGE, a transgender antiviolence organization in Milwaukee, shared a few remarks during the press conference. Gregory recently joined the city’s Equal Rights Commission.
“The City of Milwaukee has been a statewide leader in enacting measures supportive of LGBTQIA+ residents for many years,” they said. “In this time when LGBTQIA+ individuals are being targeted nationwide, the other critical message today is that community partners along with city leaders are committed to continuing to work to ensure that Milwaukee is a safe, inclusive and equitable city for all.”
Elle Halo, a local activist and LGBTQ health advocate, also spoke at the press conference. Halo, a Black transwoman, has worked with the Equal Rights Commission and the Human Rights Campaign.
During her remarks, Halo thanked the work of past community activists and advocates. Halo noted that trauma and discrimination still happen to this day and the fight is not over. There is still bullying and discrimination against trans youth, high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth, a need for housing and health equity, sexual assault and more.
She said that seven Black trans women from the community had been viciously attacked this year and one went missing. Through her own experience, which includes engaging in policy work, art, mutual aid and more, Halo has experienced her own share of trauma.
Still, she is not without hope.
“There is a remarkable healing justice and abolitionist movement happening in our city,” Halo said. “And I would go as far to say there’s a Black and brown renaissance happening sending waves and ripples that will positively impact this community in years to come.”
She noted that many of her peers and collaborates are breaking through the glass ceiling. This is done by investing in the community, building capacity, trusting the expertise and taking seats at the table, Halo said.
“No matter how far we’ve come, we have so much further to go, while our government systems, industrial prison complex, legal systems and public officials continue to let us down” she said. “It is up to us, the queer and trans people of color of this community, to ensure our own survival and to leave this time in our nation’s history better than we found it.”
Halo asked that everyone take an active role in fighting discrimination and making Milwaukee a safer place for all.
Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa, Wendy Stout, the Wisconsin state director of the Human Rights Campaign, Megin McDonell, the executive director of Fair Wisconsin and Adam Tindall-Schlicht the director of Port Milwaukee, also spoke at the press conference.
To view the full report, visit the Human Rights Campaign website at hrc.org/mei.