fresh voices from the front lines of change







This week the South rose again and tried to go back in time about 50 year, as several former confederate states tried to legislate a queer new twist on Jim Crow; so much for southern hospitality.

Once again, a toxic blend of religion and bigotry takes hold below the Mason-Dixon line.

North Carolina

Last week, North Carolina made news when the state legislature called a special session to respond to a new ordinance in Charlotte that prohibited discrimination against LGBT people in public accommodations. Afraid that the entire population would become chronically “pee-shy,” lawmakers took just 12 hours to introduce, debate, pass, and have the governor sign a law prohibiting cities from passing ordinances that went beyond state or federal law. The law also bars transgender people from using public restrooms that do not match the gender on their birth certificates.

Just like that, the North Carolina Assembly and governor cancelled out Charlotte’s ordinance, and stopped other cities from passing LGBT-friendly ordinances. It also stopped cities from passing ordinances to raise minimum wage or mandate paid family leave. Suddenly, conservatives who supposedly believed that best government is that which is closest to the people demand that the state “supersede and preempt” local rule. Conservatives who claim to want the government of our backs are perfectly happy with it telling us where to pee.

There’s a pattern in the South, of growing progressive cities being overruled by right-wing state legislatures. In southern states, large cities — often state capitols and their metro areas, or college towns — serve as oases of relative progressivism in vast deserts of right-wing bigotry. LGBT southerners settle in and around these cities, drawn by the presence of community and the chance to live openly, resulting in more progressive attitudes that sometimes find expression in local ordinances. In my home state of Georgia, the political divide was always clear. Atlanta may have been “the city too busy to hate,” but that wasn’t true for the rest of the state. Inside the “fruit loop” — a local name for the Beltway that surrounds Atlanta — was relatively safe and friendly for LGBT people, but that changed as one travelled further away from it.

North Carolina continues to pay a big price for enshrining bigotry in law.

The icing on the cake is that police in North Carolina have no idea how they’re going to enforce the law’s “bathroom clause.” The law was so hastily drafted, passed, and signed that if doesn’t offer any enforcement guidance either. Across the state, local police departments said they don’t currently have officers stationed at public restrooms, or require people to show their birth certificates in order to use a restroom. They’re unlikely to have the police power to do that any time soon.

Not to worry. Surely public-minded citizens will take it upon themselves to report anyone they think might be in the “wrong” restroom. If you’re transgender in North Carolina, your safest bet is to hold it until you get home.

Mississippi, Goddam

Almost in an attempt to out-do North Carolina, Mississippi passed what is probably the most extreme anti-LGBT “religious freedom” law to date. The “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” signed by governor Phil Bryant, protects “sincerely held religious belief” that “sexual relations are properly reserved to” a marriage between a woman and a man. Designed to prohibit the state from taking action against those who discriminate against same-sex couples, based on their religious beliefs, the law may also allow discrimination against unmarried heterosexual couples too.

It gets worse.

  • The Mississippi law bars the government from taking any action against any foster parent who “guides, instructs, or raises a child.… in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief.” So, if the foster folks use the American Family Association’s “Biblical Approach to Spanking” to “guide, instruct, or raise” a budding LGBT foster kid “in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief,” the state will apparently stand by and let them.
  • The law also protects organizations like the American Family Association from the “governmental threat of losing their tax exempt status.”
  • The law protects anyone who decides to “whether or not to hire, terminate or discipline an individual whose conduct or religious beliefs are inconsistent” with their religious beliefs. Mississippi has never had a law prohibiting employment discrimination against LGBt people. But it now has one that protects discrimination against LGBT people.
  • It also protects those who decide to whom they will rent or sell housing based on their religious beliefs. So, if you’re an LGBT Mississippian, the state says your landlord can put you out on the street for being LGBT, and the state won’t do anything about it.
  • The law says that medical professionals can decline “treatments, counseling, or surgeries related to sex reassignment or gender identity transitioning,” and “psychological, counseling, or fertility services,” to those whose “lifestyles” violate their religious beliefs. If you’re LGBT, the doctor may not be in. Not for you, that is.
  • Protects schools and employers that create “sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming, or concerning access to restrooms, spas, baths, showers, dressing rooms, locker rooms or other intimate facilities or settings.” So, if you don’t look masculine or feminine enough, you could have a problem.

The late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia actually put it best in 1990, when he warned in the majority option in Employment Division v. Smith, that making an individual’s obedience to the law “contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs” is basically “permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs ‘to become a law unto himself’.” The ruling set off a spate of “religious freedom” laws that are now being used to carve out an area where religion trumps law.

Mississippi’s law may turn out to be costly to the state, which already ranks as the poorest state in America.

The state has been roundly mocked. The Funny or Die website posted a searing Mississippi tourism campaign parody.


The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, noted that Mississippi features out lesbian “Good Morning America” — who can now, along with her girlfriend, be legally denied service anywhere in the state — on its official tourism publication.

The tourism industry is bracing for a backlash. The Mississippi Tourism Association says, “Our members statewide are reporting calls, emails and social media posts from people canceling or postponing trips to Mississippi due to national media reporting on this new law.” The association is stepping up plans to launch a campaign emphasizing that everyone is welcome in the state. But, let’s face it, the law now says otherwise.


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There was a spattering of good news, too:

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