Columns » Jay Barth

The South and LGBT rights

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Two remarkable movements are underway across the South right now. First is a tide of state legislation intended to counteract progress on LGBT rights. Second, and even more remarkable considering the political history of the region, is strong economic pressure fighting these legislative efforts. Considering the extraordinary — indeed, arguably unmatched — attitudinal transformation on LGBT issues that Americans have undergone in recent decades, it is clear how this war will ultimately play out, but in the shorter term the battle for the heart and soul of the South is an unpredictable contest.

Following last summer's Obergefell decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court enshrined marriage equality in American law, some expected a backlash in public attitudes about LGBT individuals and LGBT-related public policies across the nation. Such a backlash has indeed emerged, but only within a certain political niche: Republican Party elites in the reddest of states, most prominently in the legislatures of the South.

The actions of these Southern elected officials exemplify the traditionalism that has defined the political culture of the South for most of the region's history. Such traditionalism resists social and political change in all its forms because of the comforting stability the status quo provides, particularly to those at the top of the power structure.

Some Southern governors have agreed to sign anti-LGBT legislation pushed by their legislative majorities. In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB 2, which both bars localities from protecting groups not covered by the state's civil rights law (in essence, a less sloppy version of an Arkansas law now being tested in court) and places an explicit ban on individuals using public bathrooms not corresponding to the sex they were assigned at birth. This means that localities' protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity have been struck down across the state. Last week, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed an act to "protect freedom of conscience from government discrimination." HB 1523 allows public officials and private parties to refuse various services to individuals based on their marital status, sexuality or gender identity if doing so violates their religious conscience.

Although Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is of a similar ideological ilk, he made a different decision when faced with a "religious freedom" bill like the one in Mississippi. Deal did so because of business interests who contended the law would stifle economic opportunity in Georgia, including making it unlikely that the NFL would pick Atlanta as a future Super Bowl site. These arguments were an excellent example of the entrepreneurialism that analysts of Southern politics have highlighted as the competitor to traditionalism in the region since the 1970s. Entrepreneurialism says that even more important than holding on to traditional values and power structures is the promise of economic growth in the "New South."

It is one thing for economic forces to oppose anti-LGBT legislation, but it is even more interesting that those interests are not giving up even after bills become law. In North Carolina, PayPal has already stopped plans to bring 400 high-paying jobs to the Charlotte area; the NBA has said its 2017 All-Star game will not take place in Charlotte unless the legislation is revisited; a major Internet porn company has barred North Carolina IP addresses from accessing its sites; and Bruce Springsteen last week canceled a Greensboro concert, saying "some things are more important than a rock show." The backlash in Mississippi has been similar.

Perhaps most startling to Mississippians, Southeastern Conference officials said that they would take the legislation into account in the siting of future conference events. All these examples dramatize the fundamental nature of the attitudinal shift on LGBT issues in contemporary America.

Some see such aggressive threats and actions as economic "bullying." (Having seen Springsteen in Portland a few weeks back, I agree that denying anyone access to "The River 2016 Tour" is indeed pretty ghastly.) But, that description is driven by the reality that such interests will ultimately prevail on this issue, as they did in Arkansas during the debate over HB 1228 last year.

As satisfying as it may be to watch economic powers side with LGBT activists over traditionalists, it also highlights an important part of the debate sometimes missed: social justice. An exception is a beautiful missive signed by 95 Mississippi writers that concluded: "What literature teaches us is empathy. It reminds us to reach out a hand to our neighbors — even if they look different from us, love different from us — and say, 'Why, I recognize you; you're a human, just like me, sprung from the same messy place, bound on the same hard road.' " Indeed, this should be a debate about the impact on human beings, not on dollars and cents.

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