The annual index ranks each state by assessing LGBTQ+ people’s experiences and is designed to be a tool for business leaders to advocate for equality from a business perspective.
“We know that states, cities, and municipalities that are more LGBTQ+-friendly reap the benefits of the brightest minds,” wrote Todd Sears, Out Leadership founder and CEO, in the index. “This commitment translates to a more competitive talent pool, increased consumer loyalty, and a better bottom line.”
The index gives each state a score out of 100 points, based on 20 markers across five categories: Legal and Non-discrimination Protections, Youth and Family Support, Political and Religious Attitudes, Health Access, and Safety and Work Environment and Employment.
Each category includes markers like, “Does the state have any employment nondiscrimination policies for LGBTQ+ people?” “How supportive is the state of LGBTQ+ people who are in or want to start families?” and “Do LGBTQ+ people, particularly the most vulnerable and economically precarious, have access to health care and insurance?” For each question, Out Leadership gave the state a score out of five.
“[The markers] are all objective data points; none of the pieces of the index are subjective,” Sears said. “The idea is, we score every state on those data points and say, ‘Look, the lower your score, the worse you are for business and talent.’ Full stop.”
Ohio scored 53.43. New York received the highest ranking, 93.87 points, for the second year in a row, while South Carolina received the lowest score, 33.63 points, for the third year. Regionally, Ohio placed eighth in the Midwest, while Illinois and South Dakota took the top and lowest spots, respectively.
“I think Ohio has a lower score because Ohio has failed to take the opportunity to overtly welcome the LGBTQ+ community,” said Alana Jochum, executive director of Equality Ohio – a statewide legislative and legal nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering equality for LGBTQ+ people.
In the absence of state non-discrimination protections, like the Ohio Fairness Act pending in the legislature for the past 10 years, Jochum says localities have had to step in to distinguish themselves as affirming spaces. Across Ohio, 35 localities and 34 cities have added their own non-discrimination protections.
Rather than pass similar protections, the Ohio legislature has opted for anti-LGBTQ+ bills. In April, House Bill 616 was introduced, a “divisive concepts” bill opponents have dubbed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would prohibit schools from teaching about “divisive or inherently racist concepts,” including sexual orientation and gender identity for students between kindergarten and third grade. In May, House Bill 454 was introduced to ban various medical procedures for transgender or non-binary minors, and in June came House Bill 151, which aims to ban transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports.
“[Ohio] is on the brink of rolling back as this hateful, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is considered by our state leaders, instead of more conversation on how we can improve our climate for LGBTQ+ folks who want to live, work and play here,” Jochum said.
Severe Economic Costs
Out Leadership began in 2010 when Sears asked himself one question: How can I convince more companies to use their economic power to fight inequality?
With a background working for Merrill Lynch, Sears gathered six Wall Street banks for a summit focused on business talent inequality. The forum only grew from there, launching additional summits in Europe, Brazil, Australia, and Asia – the first gay summit ever in Asia.
Today, Out Leadership has worked with 30,000 business leaders, 700 CEOs, and 97 companies, including Amazon, American Express, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, P&G, Walmart, and many more.
Sears and the Out Leadership team began building the index five years ago to provide a definitive mark of discrimination across the United States.
“I firmly felt that there was this misunderstanding: People thought that marriage equality solved all the rights for LGBTQ+ people, and it didn’t,” Sears said. “Not everybody wants to be married, but everybody wants to have a place to work where they can be open and out and a place to raise their families.”
This year’s index demonstrates a concerning trend replicated in Ohio: the higher-ranked states continue to offer better support for the LGBTQ+ community, while the lower-ranked states continuously worsen.
The index argues this polarization in political and cultural attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community leads to severe economic costs. For example, the index says discrimination is causing LGBTQ+ employees to leave unfriendly states, with 24% of LGBTQ+ workers having moved to a more inclusive city, 36% considering a move, and 31% saying they would take a pay cut to do so.
“These states are sacrificing their future talent simply to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” Sears said. “They’re using the trans community, for example, and using fear to drive an agenda that has nothing to do with protecting children.”
Jochum agrees, saying LGBTQ+ Ohioans and young adults are fleeing the state in droves. She said Ohio cannot attract talent for businesses that are trying to invest here, especially while building companies in places outside of major city hubs that have local protections.
In contrast, states receiving high scores are taking steps that are quite basic, according to Sears. Some steps these states have taken include making conversion therapy illegal, allowing trans people to change their birth markers, and removing antiquated HIV criminalization laws – 31 states, including Ohio, still have HIV laws passed in the 1980s.
“We know that LGBTQ+ folks [Google] ‘LGBTQ+ Ohio’ as they are looking to accept jobs or move here from other states, and what they see isn’t good,” Jochum said. “They see the wave of news stories talking about the attacks on LGBTQ+ equality, especially our transgender community, and it scares them.”
Building a Coalition
Sears said the path is clear: “If LGBTQ+ people feel safe and protected, then they can work and build families. Economies need people who can work and build families.”
The concern goes beyond the LGBTQ+ population as allyship intensifies. The index argues friends and family members of LGBTQ+ people are using their buying power to make their allyship known, as 40% of shoppers said they would change brands depending on a brand’s position on inclusion.
For example, Sears said many straight parents with gay kids don’t want to live in Florida anymore after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a “Don’t Say Gay” law.
“States that are anti-LGBTQ+ are anti-innovation and anti-progressive,” Sears said.
Sears said companies who are allies need to ban together. In Ohio, business leaders have heard the cry and assembled through Ohio Business Competes, a nonpartisan coalition of over 1,200 businesses committed to achieving non-discrimination policies. The coalition has been an advocate for the Ohio Fairness Act.
“Why are our leaders closing their ears to what is the clear and easy path forward that will help us both do the right thing, but also be economically more viable as we compete for businesses to invest here?” Jochum said.
Jochum has seen Ohio businesses work to make inclusive workspaces for many years because they know that’s how their talent is seen, thrives, is productive, and is valued by workplace culture. That is why she said she believes Ohio can be a welcoming and affirming state. Further, she called on business leaders to focus energy on advancing Ohio forward by ensuring their businesses are active in advocacy and part of coalitions like Ohio Business Competes while telling legislators that Ohio is suffering.
“Be part of that echo chamber around our legislators to help give them the political courage to do what we know Ohio needs them to do for our economy,” Jochum said.