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Springfield diversity director to meet with Kansas City LGBTQ Commission leader

In downtown Springfield, attendees watch drag performances at the June 2023 Greater Ozarks Pridefest.
Dylan Durrington/KSMU
In downtown Springfield, attendees watch drag performances at the June 2023 Greater Ozarks Pridefest.

This week, the City of Springfield’s diversity chief is meeting with officials from Kansas City about LGBT equality.

“We’d like to be part of any positive conversations that takes place in the community," says Taj Suleyman.

In an era when “DEI” and “CRT” have become very negative concepts in the eyes of many Missouri conservatives, Suleyman serves as Springfield’s city director of diversity, equity and inclusion. The job was created two years ago, and Suleyman is the first person to hold it.

Suleyman told KSMU that part of what guides him in his work is the 2022 Springfield Mayor’s Initiative on Equity and Equality. According to a final report handed up to City Council by the initiative’s 18-member task force, Springfield's vision is to “create and promote a community where differences are valued and celebrated and where everyone has the opportunity to prosper and contribute."

As part of that process, Suleyman and others with the City of Springfield plan to meet with Justice Horn, chair of Kansas City’s LGBTQ Commission, and other officials from Missouri’s second-biggest metro. The meeting is set for this week.

Justice Horn says, "it is going to be a meeting that includes our director of equity, our city’s LGBQ liaison, as well as myself as chair with folks in the Springfield government. It was initally — the email stated that — you know, it was very warm — it congratulated us on our Municipal Equality Index.”

U.S. cities scored on perceived performance with LGBT issues

So, you might be wondering — what is the Municipal Equality Index?

It’s a score, regularly published by the Human Rights Campaign. That’s a nationwide LGBT advocacy group in Washington, D.C. The MEI essentially ranks cities around the country on their perceived performance on LGBT issues. Notably, those include nondiscrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations like restaurants and hotels.

In Missouri, the MEI measures eight cities. Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia got a perfect 100 score in the most recent index. Springfield came in 6th, with a score of 53. The city got zero points for nondiscrimination in housing, jobs and public accommodations because in Springfield, there are no legal protections for LGBT people in those areas.

Suleyman, the Springfield diversity director, says the idea behind the Springfield-Kansas City meeting is to brainstorm ideas and best practices for improving the MEI score, if Springfield City Council decides to move forward in that direction before Human Rights Campaign begins compiling its next index report.

Here’s Justice Horn, from Kansas City, talking about the Municipal Equality Index.

“You know, here in Kansas City," he says, "that index is really just a minimum for us, it’s the basement, we go above and beyond — from becoming a sanctuary city, to all-inclusive, all-gender bathrooms in our airports, to employee health care, to, you know, hosting a trans town hall.”

A tense year for Missouri LGBT people

But Missouri and local politics aren’t in step with the Kansas City vision as expressed by Horn. It’s been a tense year, in the eyes of many LGBT community members in Springfield and across the state.

Springtime saw controversy in Jefferson City, as lawmakers in the Republican supermajority voted to ban transgender-related medical care for people under 18.

Meanwhile, advocates in Springfield began asking the school board — so far, unsuccessfully — to issue a statement of support for LGBT students and employees.

Then in June, Greater Ozarks Pridefest attracted much more controversy than in recent years. For most LGBT people, the downtown Springfield event serves as a celebration of community life and achievements in the struggle for equality.

But for many Christian conservatives, Pridefest and drag performances at the event were said to be, “pushing a woke agenda,” in the words of Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller.

Months after Pridefest, local resident Aaron Schekorra resigned from his job as spokesperson for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, citing what he called “harassment” over his identity as a gay man.

Local conservatives on talk radio criticized Schekorra and city government for what they saw as an inappropriate quote “sponsorship” of Greater Ozarks Pridefest. The city government and the health department paid roughly $500 to rent a pair of booths at the event but told KSMU at the time that didn’t count as a “sponsorship."

But the highest elected leadership of Springfield has come out in favor of including queer people. In early June, Springfield City Council voted 8-to-1 to approve a symbolic statement of support for LGBT equality in Springfield. The resolution was sponsored by four councilmembers: Heather Hardinger, Craig Hosmer, Monica Horton and Brandon Jenson. Councilman Derek Lee was the only member to vote against the statement.

While the statement doesn’t change Springfield law to add nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people seeking jobs or housing, it recognizes June as “LGBTQ+ Pride Month” in Springfield and mentions the contributions of LGBT people to the Springfield community.

KSMU asked Suleyman if Springfield is a welcoming community regardless of identity backgrounds. He hedged and said there’s always opportunity for growth.

“The response is not a yes or no," Suleyman says. "I think the response is — do we, you know, we need to have — There is a room for us to be more inclusive. ‘Cause if I said Yes, then also that’s also a subjective yes; if I said No, also that is a subjective no.”

Backdrop of controversy

Meanwhile, this is all happening with a backdrop of internal infighting among LGBT advocates at the state level.

In early September, Horn — the chair of Kansas City’s LGBTQ+ Commission — resigned from the board of PROMO, a Missouri-based statewide LGBT advocacy group. Horn and others allege PROMO hasn’t done an adequate job of standing up for the rights of transgender folks — or including them.

On social media last week, Horn also criticized a PROMO board member from Springfield, Kyler Sherman-Wilkins. When KSMU asked about that situation and whether it could affect any meeting with Springfield city officials, Horn objected to the question, and asked that Ozarks Public Radio note that objection in our news report.

Meanwhile, locally based LGBT advocates say they’d be interested in meeting with Springfield government. Here’s Kyler Sherman-Wilkins. He serves on the board of PROMO, the group at the center of recent controversy over trans rights and representation. He’s also a Missouri State University professor heavily active in local public affairs. Sherman-Wilkins is president of the GLO Center, an LGBT organization in Springfield dating back to 1996. And he’s a vice president with the local NAACP chapter.

“I haven’t heard from any officials at the City," Sherman-Wilkins says. "I have, however, heard from a few Council persons who are very much committed to LGBT equity in the City of Springfield.”

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs.