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Sexual Orientation Policy Tally

The term “sexual orientation” is loosely defined as a person’s pattern of romantic or sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex or gender, the same sex or gender, or more than one sex or gender. Laws that explicitly mention sexual orientation primarily protect or harm lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. That said, transgender people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual can be affected by laws that explicitly mention sexual orientation.

Gender Identity Policy Tally

“Gender identity” is a person’s deeply-felt inner sense of being male, female, or something else or in-between. “Gender expression” refers to a person’s characteristics and behaviors such as appearance, dress, mannerisms and speech patterns that can be described as masculine, feminine, or something else. Gender identity and expression are independent of sexual orientation, and transgender people may identify as heterosexual, lesbian, gay or bisexual. Laws that explicitly mention “gender identity” or “gender identity and expression” primarily protect or harm transgender people. These laws also can apply to people who are not transgender, but whose sense of gender or manner of dress does not adhere to gender stereotypes.

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State Policy Tally Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are the “State Policy Tallies”? How did you come up with the tally and how did you choose which policies to include?

The State Policy Tallies are a comprehensive look at state and local laws and policies that protect or harm LGBT people. Each state’s tally counts the number of positive laws and policies within the state that help drive equality for LGBT people.

Each positive law counts as a single point (and fractions of a point are assigned to states with positive local laws that do not cover the entire state population or to states that have enacted a portion of a law). A state’s policy tally is reduced by a point if the state has a negative law that harms or deliberately targets LGBT people. A state’s total possible tally ranges from -10 to 34.

Table: Cutoffs for Each Tally


State Tally Cutoffs

States with high tallies generally offer solid protections across the six major policy areas examined in this report. States with low or hostile tallies offer few or no protections, or have predominantly negative laws. States with medium tallies often offer positive marriage and parenting laws, but may fall short on safe schools, nondiscrimination laws, health and safety laws, and/or laws and policies that help transgender people update the gender marker on their identity documents.

The policy tally only looks at laws and policies which have been passed or enacted. It does not consider active policy or legislation which has been proposed but not passed. The tally also excludes laws or policies that do not explicitly protect LGBT people, such as unenumerated non-discrimination, hate crimes, or safe schools laws. However, the Movement Advancement Project is constantly updating the online maps to reflect the changing legislative landscape.

If you have a suggestion for expanding the maps, please email us at info@lgbtmap.org. Our tally system is dynamic – meaning that as new laws pass, whether anti-LGBT or pro-LGBT, we will update the maps and include the new laws in the tally.


2. What is considered a “Negative Law”?

Negative laws are those that specifically target LGBT people and/or restrict access to rights, services, or programs for LGBT people. Examples of negative laws that specifically target LGBT people include:


3. Why is marriage only worth one point?

Each law in the tally is counted as a single point. With marriage come a number of other rights, including medical decision-making authority for same-sex couples, access to stepparent and joint adoption for same-sex couples, parental presumption for same-sex couples, and more. Therefore, when a state extends marriage rights to same-sex couples, their Overall Policy Tally can increase by a total of 5 points.


4. Why does the tally look at sexual orientation and gender identity and what makes a policy count in the sexual orientation tally and not the gender identity tally and vice-versa? Are you saying transgender people don’t benefit when marriage or adoption access are extended to same-sex couples?

The term “sexual orientation” is loosely defined as a person’s pattern of romantic or sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex or gender, the same sex or gender, or more than one sex or gender.

“Gender identity” is a person’s deeply-felt inner sense of being male, female, or something else or in-between. “Gender expression” refers to a person’s characteristics and behaviors such as appearance, dress, mannerisms and speech patterns that can be described as masculine, feminine, or something else. Gender identity and expression are independent of sexual orientation, and transgender people may identify as heterosexual, lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Legislative language refers to these two protected characteristics so this is what the tally counts. For example, rather than protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination, a law will instead prohibit discrimination “on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” A law may have protections for neither, both, or for sexual orientation only.

In general, laws covering sexual orientation affect lesbian, gay and bisexual people, while laws covering gender identity affect transgender people—but there is also significant overlap. For example, many lesbian, gay and bisexual people have a sense of gender or manner of dress that do not conform to gender stereotypes, and therefore benefit from laws that provide protections based on a person’s gender identity and expression. Similarly, transgender people may be lesbian, gay or bisexual. Or, a transgender person in an opposite-sex relationship may be legally considered to be in same-sex relationship (for example, when the law does not recognized the transgender person’s gender) and therefore will benefit from laws that pertain to same-sex couples.

In short, the tally does not look at who benefits from the law, rather it looks at what characteristics are covered by the legislative language.


5. Why are there more possible points under “sexual orientation” than “gender identity”?

There are more laws that implicate sexual orientation than those that implicate gender identity. The tally counts how many laws implicate each.


6. Are states with High or Medium equality tallies better for LGBT people to live in than states with Low or Negative tallies?

The tallies look only at existing laws—they do not look at the social climate of a state, nor do they take into account implementation of each state’s laws. The tally also does not reflect local-level progress beyond non-discrimination protections extending to private employment, housing and public accommodations—so for example, a state may have made significant progress with local school districts or a city within a state may have a high level of equality even though the state itself has lower equality. Determining the extent of LGBT legal equality in state cannot possibly capture the vitality of a community.

That said, research suggests that the lack of legal equality has negative impacts on LGBT people. Anti-LGBT laws—at the federal, state, and local levels—have the emotional impact of telling LGBT people that they matter less than others, that their families and their health are not as important, and that their contributions at work are less valued. Outdated and discriminatory laws also have serious economic impacts, causing LGBT people to have a harder time becoming financially secure and providing for their families. For more information on the economic ramifications of anti-LGBT discrimination, please see our report Paying an Unfair Price.


7. Why is there so much variation between the states?

Some areas of the country have had greater resistance to equality for LGBT people, resulting in a tougher challenges for advocates, who often also face a double-whammy of meeting greater resistance with fewer resources. States with low tallies might shift rapidly with an influx of resources, whereas those states with high tallies might continue to expand equality for LGBT people in ways that can provide models for other states.


8. What’s next for states with High policy tallies?

States with High policy tallies are be able to expand equality in new and innovative ways. Some states are working to guarantee access to healthcare and other social services, whereas others are enacting legislation to protect LGBT youth and older adults, or working on issues affecting LGBT people of color, LGBT immigrants, and LGBT people in the criminal justice system. For example, High equality states have led recent efforts to ban harmful and discredited conversion therapy practices used on LGBT minors. Others are focusing on implementation, for example, by providing education and cultural competency training to medical providers. Where possible, the policy tallies will be updated as new issues emerge.


9. Why did you do this?

As a result of the uneven and uncertain progress for LGBT equality, LGBT people in America face an almost incomprehensible patchwork of laws. An LGBT individual or family may have high levels of legal equality in one state, while their LGBT counterparts in a neighboring state face only hostile or negative laws. Constructing in-depth Policy Tallies by state gives us an idea of the legislative landscape and illustrates the gaps in protections across the U.S. The tally also helps illustrate the differences in legal equality based on sexual orientation versus gender identity and expression, and that progress in one area does not necessarily mean progress in the other.


10. My question isn't answered here.

Have a question or suggestion that isn’t answered by this FAQ? Contact us at info@lgbtmap.org.

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