This winter hasn't been a great one for LGBT rights in the South. Even as public opinion continues to shift toward marriage equality, and as courts around the country -- including those in conservative religious states like Kentucky, Oklahoma and Utah -- have ruled that laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, religious conservatives across the South have pushed bills that seek to enshrine anti-gay discrimination in law. But Patricia Todd, Alabama's first openly gay lawmaker, now seeking her third term as a state representative, sees a rosier picture.
The Huffington Post spoke with Todd about how being gay is no longer a campaign issue in her district, her relationship with her Republican colleagues, and why she'd never leave Alabama.
"Frankly, I would be bored living in a progressive state," Todd said.
You were elected in 2006, the same year that 81 percent of Alabama voters approved the state's same-sex marriage ban at the ballot box. Since then, 16 states have legalized same-sex marriages, and national polls have shown majority support for marriage equality. Have you seen a shift among Alabamans?
There has been a shift throughout the country and in Alabama, but our state has never been known to do the right thing and we will wait until the court demands recognition before the state moves forward on this issue.
My service in the legislature has changed the discussion -- for example, last week the Speaker told me that he would kill a Senate resolution that affirmed the state's belief in "traditional" marriage because I was his friend and he did not want to embarrass me! While that will never be printed in a news headline, it is significant for our state.
You're up for reelection this year. How do you think the challenges of this current election compare to your first campaign?
Being openly gay doesn't seem to be a campaign issue this year. My district is very progressive and is more concerned with my body of work than who I love.
When we spoke last year, you had recently introduced the first bill of your political career that touched on gay rights. [The bill aimed to invalidate the state's sex education policy, which required 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."] Can you talk about the fallout of that effort, and why it didn't succeed?
I have introduced the revision to the sex ed curriculum this year, but the chair of the committee refused to place it on the committee calendar. She is not running for reelection, so our odds will be better next year.
A number of youth groups have taken up the cause and are great advocates for the issue. They include Advocates for Youth, high school and college LGBT groups and others.
I read an article last year that indicated you were contemplating bringing a lawsuit against the state's marriage ban -- are you still planning this? If not, why not?
Jen [Todd's wife] and I will be submitting our state taxes as a married couple, and the legal department of the Revenue Commissioner admits that they have no way of confirming anyone's marital status. If they process ours, they have legally recognized our marriage. If they reject our return, then they have discriminated against us.
I have a team of attorneys working on a potential lawsuit based on what has been upheld in other states.
Alabama is not known for its gay-friendly elected officials. How have your relationships with your colleagues, particularly those who may have never met an openly gay person before, shifted in your first 8 years in office?
My relationship with my legislative peers is strong, especially among Republicans. I knew when I was elected that I needed to develop relationships in order to be effective. I spend most of my time talking with Republicans so I can better understand their point of view. Listening and respect go a long way to build those positive relationships.
I am proud to say that I have not been subject to any hate speech or treated any differently because I am gay. I use humor to make folks comfortable, so I am always making comments about how nice it would to be able to marry the person you love ... They smile because I am not beating them over the head with it.
Alabama is one of a number of Southern states that have pushed a version of a "religious freedom" bill, laws designed to protect institutions' and businesses' right to discriminate against gay people. What are your views on these laws, and why do you think so many versions of these bills popped up this winter?
[Alabama's] bills have not been discussed in terms of discrimination against gays, but more about religious freedom around abortion options. I have not heard one legislator say they would support the Arizona bill.
Do you see evidence of a backlash against the momentum of the gay rights movement in your state?
I have not seen a backlash against us -- in fact, I have seen more meaningful conversations and understanding of our issues. It is amazing how many legislators have a gay family member or someone in their life who is gay, and that helps change their mind.
What's at the top of your legislative wish list for gay rights in Alabama right now?
I think we are moving public opinion in Alabama, and my hope would be to have a non-discrimination policy for teachers and state employees and to achieve marriage equality.
What first drew you to Alabama, when you moved there in the '80s? (And do you ever think about moving?)
I moved to Alabama from D.C. in the early '80s for love. After the relationship ended, I decided to stay here. I love Southerners and Southern culture, so I fit here. Many friends have asked why I stay in such an oppressive environment -- my response is, "This is my missionary work and here is where the work needs to be done." I have never run from a fight for justice and frankly I would be bored living in a progressive state. I am an activist at heart and need to be on the front lines.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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