To Erin Walker, senior in psychology, rules are more than just words written on paper and policies are more than just formalities filed away in a code book. They mean something.
During her sophomore year at Auburn, she transitioned from being a man to being a woman. It was a difficult time for her, she said. Friends were supportive and professors were mostly accepting, but not everyone was.
At the time, she was in chemical engineering, a tight-knit major where everyone knows everyone. Students spend most of their time working on semester-long group projects.
"I came out as transgender in 2011, and I decided to transition in the middle of the semester," Walker said. "Everybody knew I was the transgender student in the class. Chemical engineering is a conservative major like any engineering major. I was alienated. Most people didn't want to talk to me. I didn't really get along with anybody after I came out. I very quickly became the black sheep."
Students in her project group would get into screaming matches over which pronoun to use for her, despite her obvious preferences, and staff would intentionally misgender her as well. She said she has a friend who transitioned from female to male and experienced more violent, physical backlash. He even had a professor who tried to fail him.
"This was at a time when Auburn University didn't have gender identity or gender expression added to its nondiscrimination clause," Walker, who is the director of political affairs for Spectrum, said. Spectrum is Auburn University's Gay-Straight Alliance.
Since then, she has been a leading force in pushing the University to include enumerated nondiscrimination policies. Thanks to their efforts, students, faculty, staff and administration can no longer discriminate against anyone based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
For Walker, getting those changes into University policy was about more than adding a few more words to codes of conduct. It was about making sure the same thing that happened to her and her friends never happened to anyone else.
"Those protections are now in place, but at the time these discriminatory practices were occurring, those options weren't on the table," she said. "Those protections weren't in place. We didn't have the ability to treat any of this as a hate crime. We didn't have the ability to treat any of this as discrimination targeted toward transgender individuals."
Now, Walker considers campus and the University community as a safe place. But as soon as Walker or any member of the LGBTQ community steps foot across Magnolia Avenue or South College Street — beyond the boundaries of the University's campus — the legal protections against discrimination disappear.
The City of Auburn does not have any formally established nondiscrimination policies that specifically protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, their gender identity or the gender they express.
Auburn was recently scored as one of the eight worst cities for equality and inclusion for LGBTQ people, according to a report by the nation's largest LGBTQ civil rights group.
The Loveliest Village was among 506 cities and municipalities across the nation scored by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the Equality Federation Institute in their annual Municipal Equality Index.
The organization gave Auburn a zero out of 100 in its final score — making it one of only eight cities in the entire United States to receive a zero.
Auburn received a score for the first time this year.
The city received scores in five broad categories, which the HRC believes contribute to overall LGBTQ equality and inclusion. The MEI rated the cities' nondiscrimination laws, municipal employment policies, the inclusivity of city-provided services, law enforcement and city leadership's relationship with the LGBTQ community.
In each of these individual categories, Auburn took home a zero.
In addition to protecting Auburn's LGBTQ population from employment discrimination in the private sector, the City of Auburn has no explicit protections in city employment policy to protect LGTBQ people from facing discrimination when applying for municipal jobs, according to the HRC's report.
"The city provides equal opportunity to all persons for employment ... based on proficiency and merit and without regard to race, color, sex, age, religion, national origin, political belief, disability or genetic information," the city's Equal Employment Opportunity Policy statement reads.
Sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are absent in the city's policy.
City Public Affairs Director David Dorton said sex discrimination includes gender identity and sexual orientation, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"The city has a nondiscrimination policy, and does not discriminate in employment for any reason," Dorton said.
Continue reading below.
Auburn also has no enumerated protections for LGBTQ people when it comes to housing discrimination, the HRC's report said.
It is unlawful "to make any distinction, discrimination or restriction against any person ... predicated upon race, color, religion, sex, national origin or ancestry of the prospective or actual buyer or tenant," the city's Housing Discrimination code reads.
Sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are not included.
"This language is essentially the same as that of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing Act," Dorton said. "HUD maintains that LGBT discrimination can be covered by the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition of sex discrimination."
Sex does not necessarily cover sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in city ordinances, said Xavier Persad, legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign.
"What we're looking for here, and what is always the best practice in terms of expressly protecting LGBTQ folk, is to have explicit protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and and public accommodations citywide," Persad said.
The fact that it's not there means it's something the city needs to work on, Walker said.
"If they mean the same thing, there would be no qualms with changing the wording of one line in a bill," she said. "That enumeration wouldn't matter. But the fact that there is resistance to that enumeration is evidence enough to show it does matter."
City Manager Charlie Duggan said the city would never use sexual orientation or gender identity to discriminate against anyone when hiring them for positions in local government.
"We believe we don't discriminate, period," Duggan said. "We don't feel the need to call that out. I can tell you I certainly wouldn't stand for it with any of my staff members. We believe in treating people fairly."
It hasn't been an issue in the past, Duggan said, and the city doesn't have the authority to legislate discrimination in private-sector employment.
"I don't think we can tell businesses that," Duggan said. "That's governed by either state or federal law."
With state legislatures — like Alabama's — increasingly under the control of large conservative Republican majorities and supermajorities, it becomes the responsibility of cities to protect their neighbors from discrimination, Persad said.
"It is even more important for local leaders to act in states where these protections don't exist," Persad said. "No one deserves to be fired for their job, refused services or evicted for who they are or who they love. Many cities in states without inclusive protections are leading the way toward equality. Just this year, Jackson, Mississippi, passed fully inclusive protections for their LGBTQ residents in employment, housing and public accommodations."
The HRC's MEI scored every state's capital city, the five largest cities in every state and the cities home to each state's two largest public universities. The MEI also scored 75 cities that have "high proportions of same-sex couples" and 98 cities selected by HRC state organization members and supporters.
Auburn's final score of zero fell far below the national average score of 55 out of 100. Auburn was among only eight cities that scored zeros. Clemson, South Carolina, another city home to a large public university, also scored a zero.
"I would see this as a road map for city leaders to recognize what can and should be done to be fully inclusive of their LGBTQ community," Persad said. "It is also a road map for local advocates on the ground to see what precisely can be done to further inclusivity in their city."
Sixty cities, many in states with restrictive LGTBQ laws like Alabama, scored a 100. More than a quarter of the 506 cities scored received over a 75 on their scorecards.
The HRC said they compiled their scorecards through research into each individual city's codes and policies.
The HRC sends the scorecard by certified mail and email to both the mayor's office and the city manager. They do three separate mailings every year. The first notifies city leaders that they're going to be rated, the second allows the city to review a draft scorecard and point out any errors, and the third mailing contains the city's final report.
City officials said they never reviewed the initial notification, the draft scorecard or the final scorecard sent from HRC.
Walker and others have made a concerted effort to make Auburn's campus a "safe bubble," she said. But most students don't live on campus, and nearly everyone has to go out into the city for day-to-day needs.
"Once we leave the University, we don't have those protections any longer," Walker said. "Despite what public officials may say, sex is not the same as gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. I believe they are cognizant of that fact. It shows the areas that we need to work on to make Auburn a more inclusive, more supportive environment."
That's not to say Auburn isn't a welcoming community for any minority group, Walker said. There are many businesses and groups in the city that take it upon themselves to create safe spaces for LGBTQ people.
"But this isn't true for all of the areas around town," she said. "We do have growing places for LGBT nightlife in Auburn, which is beneficial, but this isn't the case everywhere else. I think the LGBTQ population in Auburn knows to avoid certain areas because they know there is an implication that they aren't welcome."
The city does its best to make sure everyone feels welcome, Dorton said.
"I really do believe that Auburn is a friendly and welcoming place, and intends to be so for every individual," he said. "I hope that is everyone's experience."
Efforts to reach several City Council members for comment on this article were declined by the time of publication.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman