“There’s only five of us, including me, and we’re all pretty close,” Bullock said.
The anti-discrimination ordinance is identical to the one currently in place in Charleston, the state capital. Both are more sweeping than the statewide Human Rights Act, which does not currently ban housing and employment discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.
“The big message was just, from the smallest town to the biggest town, West Virginians believe in equality,” Bullock said. He added that the town considered passing the ordinance after connecting with Fairness West Virginia, a statewide group that advocates for LGBT protections.
“The fact that there’s this growing number of communities taking this step to bring fully inclusive non-discrimination policies back home is a message to the rest of the state,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia. “This is important for moving the state forward.”
Bullock, 26, has a family home in Thurmond. He spent a large chunk of his early childhood there and is something of a legacy politician in the tiny town: “Both my parents were mayors at one point,” he said.
In addition to Bullock, the current town government (and complete adult population) looks like so: The town recorder, Chad McCune, is married to Missy Dragan, a council member. The mayor, Melanie Dragan, is Missy’s mom. The third council member is Missy’s aunt.
Thurmond is so small that it is often referred to as a “ghost town.” Bullock splits his time between Thurmond and Morgantown, where he attends law school. He described life in Thurmond as “slow.” The nearest gas station is about seven miles away, he said, though there are some advantages to its slow pace: “It’s very serene.”
In fact, Bullock said, the side of his house “looks down on” the New River.
Thurmond — marketing slogan: “Heart of the New River George” — is popular with kayakers and hikers.
Bullock said that some of Thurmond’s five residents were initially concerned that the ordinance might bring unwanted attention to their quiet town, particularly from those who oppose discrimination protection measures elsewhere.
In the nearby (and larger) town of Beckley, for example, a similar proposal faced strong opposition from several conservative and religious groups. Late last year, the town council there decided to table the measure.
In the end, the five residents of Thurmond decided to go ahead and pass their ordinance, anyway. “We’re literally the only people in this town,” he said, “and we’re the ones who get to vote on this.”
As more and more states start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, national and state LGBT rights groups have turned increasingly to advocating for measures at the national, state and local level that would include sexual orientation and gender as protected categories in existing anti-discrimination laws.
Many opponents of those measures believe they represent a threat to religious liberty, and would potentially open up some religious organizations to lawsuits.
A recent announcement from the Mormon church demonstrates the existing tensions here. The Mormons’ attempt to find a middle ground on the issue (the church said it would support housing and employment protections for LGBT individuals so long as those protections were coupled with strong “religious freedom” accommodations) faced criticism from both sides of the debate.
Fairness West Virginia says it’s been working with communities to pass anti-discrimination ordinances in the state since 2009. Anti-LGBT discrimination ordinances have passed recently in Huntington, Morgantown, Athens and Harpers Ferry, in addition to Charleston and Thurmond.
Schneider said that Fairness West Virginia in the process of working with advocates on a similar ordinance in the town of Elkins, which has a population of about 7,000. The organization is still working in Beckley, too; Schneider described the situation there as a “work in progress.”
Until Thurmond passed its ordinance, Vicco, Ky., was believed to be the smallest town in America to ban LGBT discrimination. Its population is about 67 times as big as Thurmond’s.