Alabama state Rep. Patricia Todd said she knows that same-sex marriage isn't around the corner in her Deep South state, but believes there are other gay-rights battles worth fighting.
Todd, a Democrat who joined the legislature in 2006, is Alabama's first out lawmaker. Nearly all of the bills she has worked on have had nothing to do with her sexual orientation. But earlier this month, she introduced a bill she said she hopes will be the first of many that could change life for gay, lesbian and bisexual Alabamans. The bill would invalidate the state's sex-education policy, which requires teachers to emphasize that "homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state."
Alabama has a law on the books criminalizing gay sex, but it has been unenforceable since 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down a sodomy law in Texas, and by extension, all similar laws.
Todd said she didn't think she would have much success if she proposed a bill exclusively focused on preventing teachers from telling their students that being gay is unacceptable and illegal. Instead, her proposal would strike down the entire statute that governs how the sex-ed curriculum is determined in the state.
"To be honest with you, I was hoping to just slip it through without them actually realizing that the goal was to strike down the bit about homosexuality," Todd said in an interview with The Huffington Post. Todd also tried to introduce this bill during the 2012 session, but it never made it out of committee. She said she hopes this year will be different.
"I think that we can strike the homophobic part of the law, but it's going to be an uphill challenge for me," Todd continued. "But that's good, because we need to have this discussion and people need to be on the record about where they stand on it."
Some Alabama leaders are already very much on the record when it comes to gay rights. In November, while voters in Washington, Maine, Maryland and Minnesota voted in favor of marriage equality, Alabamans re-elected a state Supreme Court chief justice who was previously removed from the bench for refusing to take down a monument to the Ten Commandments, and who has said he believes "gay marriage will destroy the nation."
Todd, who is originally from Kentucky and worked for several years in Washington for the National Organization for Women, said she never planned to serve as a public official in a place like Alabama. She made the choice to run after testifying with some other activists at a hearing for the state's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which passed in 2006. "It was the treatment we received when we were testifying," she recalled, "and we realized we would never change that conversation unless we were sitting at the table."
Now, Todd is more likely to notice progress in friendly conversations with colleagues --many of whom, she said, have never worked with an openly gay person before -- than in the state's laws. But legal experts and gay rights advocates said real progress may come in Alabama if Todd's bill passes.
"The reality of this is that the law as is is a mandate from the state not to talk positively about homosexuality and that is a real problem," said Suzanne B. Goldberg, a professor at Columbia Law School, and the director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. Battles over what teachers can say to students about gay people have been fought in courts across the U.S. for decades, Goldberg continued, and "changes in restrictive anti-gay education laws can lay the groundwork for all sorts of progress towards equality."