What should LGBT Mississippians hope for after the end of the ban on same-sex marriage in Mississippi? My concern is that same-sex marriage will make LGBT people more visible without giving them any legal protection from discrimination. Currently, there are no state laws in Mississippi that protect LGBT citizens. In the interest of full disclosure, I have a vested interest in the outcome. I am an openly gay man in Mississippi, who is married to another man. I am also the Chair of the Institutional Diversity Committee at the University of Southern Mississippi and the faculty advisor to the LGBT student organization on my campus, the Alliance for Equality. <http://www.usm.edu/gulfcoast/alliance-equality> That was why the 2014 Municipal Equality Index caught my attention when it was released by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Quite pragmatically, the HRC staff focuses on municipalities because officials at that level of government have done the best job of creating a patchwork of laws that ban LGBT discrimination. As HRC President Chad Griffin said in his introduction to the report, cities “are ready to act on LGBT equality even as their states are lagging behind.” <http://www.hrc.org/campaigns/municipal-equality-index>. (p. 4) Perhaps Griffin is right, and cities will be the beachhead of LGBT equality in Mississippi. However, when you look up Mississippi in the Index, the prospects look discouraging. For starters, only five Mississippi cities are included. The highest score, on a scale of 100, was 17 in Starkville, which is the home of Mississippi State University. By contrast, eight cities in Massachusetts made the Index, and three of those cities, Boston, Cambridge, and Worcester, scored 100. Since I live near Gulfport, Mississippi, I looked it up. The second-largest city in Mississippi (71,012 in 2013) scored 10 points, which it received for reporting hate crime statistics to the Justice Department. Gulfport had no ordinances protecting LGBT residents or city employees, it had no mechanism for recognizing same-sex unions, and it had no outreach to the LGBT community.
I also live near New Orleans, so I looked it up in the Index and discovered that metropolitan areas are light years ahead of smaller municipalities. The Big Easy scored an 83. The city has laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for employment, housing, and public accommodations. LGBT city employees are also protected from discrimination. Moreover, there is a domestic partner registry. Finally, LGBT city residents had input to the Human Rights Commission and anti-bullying policies. Without further investigation, one might conclude that Louisianans are more enlightened than Mississippians. HoHowever, none of the three other Louisiana cities in the Index followed the example of state’s largest city (343,829 residents). Shreveport scored 47, and Baton Rouge scored a 22. What amazed me was that Metarie, a suburb of New Orleans, only scored a 15. So, while it is fair to say that Louisiana is more LGBT-friendly than Mississippi, the southern state does not begin to approach Massachusetts. Nonetheless, at the municipal level, surprises abound. New Orleans’ score of 83 beat the score of that liberal bastion, Amherst, Massachusetts (34,810 in 2010), which only received a 69. The pattern of big cities surpassing smaller cities in protecting LGBT residents is also found in California and New York. Evidently, size does matter when it comes to municipalities and LGBT equality.
To return to my original question about what is next for LGBT equality in Mississippi, can much progress be imagined for a largely rural state that does not have even one metropolitan statistical area? If the size of municipalities determines the rate of progress, LGBT residents in the Magnolia state could be waiting for a long time. My initial response is that I need to move to New Orleans and commute to work in Mississippi. But there are three problems with that solution. First, I like creature comforts like walk-in closets and could not afford a decent amount of space in New Orleans. Second, I would be joining the stream of LGBT Mississippians who get fed up and move elsewhere, thereby depriving the state of its most vocal advocates. Just think what might have happened if Apple CEO Tim Cook had stayed in Alabama instead of moving to Silicon Valley. Finally, and most importantly, thinking of LGBT equality as a matter of whether or not you live in a big city lacks imagination. Here is why. Just because cities have lead the way in the past does not necessarily mean they will in the future. I think we need to imagine a different future in which the U.S. Congress passes legislation to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Because I am a historian of the African American experience, I inevitably think of parallels between LGBT equality and the civil rights movement. In the 1950s, African Americans living outside of the South relied on cities and states to enact a patchwork of laws prohibiting racial discrimination. This was a big improvement over the Jim Crow South, but it did not represent equality for African Americans. The problem was that white voters outside the South did not always support laws banning racial discrimination. For example, in 1964 the majority of California voters approved Proposition 14, which overturned the recently enacted Rumford Fair Housing Act that had prohibited racial discrimination in housing. The parallel I find to the LGBT equality movement is that heterosexual voters today cannot be relied upon to consistently support LGBT equality. In 2008, the majority of California voters opposed prohibiting discrimination against LGBT residents by supporting Proposition 8. The purpose of this amendment to the state’s constitution was to overturn the California Supreme Court’s ruling that the ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Going back to the civil rights story, it turns out that African American leaders throughout the U.S. began calling for the passage of national civil rights laws following World War II. They had concluded that nothing less would guarantee black equality. When the southern civil rights movement burst of the scene in the mid-1950s, Massive Resistance to desegregation provided both the rationale and the rallying point for passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
To round out the comparison, I think that nothing less than federal laws will guarantee LGBT equality and that the South will be crucial to the passage of such legislation. Support for LGBT equality is growing dramatically in southern states like Mississippi, but it is unlikely that the state legislature or city councils will pass LGBT non-discrimination laws in the near future. Rather than consigning LGBT supporters in Mississippi to public relations campaigns and a second-class status, I think the leaders of national LGBT organizations need to rally them to lobby for federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBT Southerners and their allies, because most of them have no legal protections, will make the best case for national legislation. Just as Fannie Lou Hamer riveted television viewers with her testimony about discrimination in Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, some as yet unknown LGBT resident of the state might well galvanize the nation to support LGBT equality. Hopefully this comparison showed that we can imagine a brighter future with national legislation.
Of course, historical comparisons can be misleading because no two moments of history are exactly the same. Mississippians might accept LGBT equality after all. What is more likely is that LGBT leaders will continue to seek equality one city or state at a time. Based on their track records, cities will still lead the way in pursuing inclusiveness in the future. Eventually the nation’s cities would reach a tipping point, and most Americans would be covered by a patchwork of municipal and state laws. That outcome will not represent equality for LGBT citizens. And that outcome could take a very long time in Mississippi. Maybe I can live without a walk-in closet. Or, maybe LGBT leaders could imagine protection from discrimination that extends beyond the city limits to include all LGBT Americans, even those in the South.
By Douglas Bristol, Jr.