THE BLOG
04/07/2016 11:40 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2016

How Our Complacency Led Mississippi to Pass An Anti-LGBT Hate Law on Steroids

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mississippi didn't need its new "religious freedom" law "protecting" those in the state with a "sincerely held religious belief or moral convictions" in continuing its ongoing discrimination against LGBT people. The new law states specifically that those who believe that marriage "should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman" are empowered to discriminate in hiring, housing and public accommodations against gay couples, and it defines gender "as determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth" and "protects" blatant discrimination against transgender people in all areas.

But legal experts believed that kind of abominable discrimination in the name of religion had already been written into law because Mississippi had passed a draconian Religious Restoration Freedom Act (RFRA) in 2014 -- literally referred to at the time as Mississippi's new "religious freedom" law, just like this one is now -- something that's been lost in the discussion this week. It's important to raise it now, however, as it points back to the complacency of the media, big business and many in the LGBT community.

And of course, it must first be pointed out that the state didn't need the 2014 RFRA either for the purpose of discrimination, since there have never been any statewide laws banning discrimination in Mississippi against LGBT people. So, in most of the state, except for localities with specific ordinances, it's always been legal to turn away a lesbian couple from a shop, or fire someone from a job simply because the individual is transgender.

But it's the act of hate itself -- the actual passing of the laws -- that gets hate mongers whipped up and excited, particularly in a state with a history of discrimination against minorities and in the months before an election. Mississippi legislators would pass an anti-LGBT law every year if they could -- and maybe they will, especially if there are no ramifications. That's why we need to look back on our own lack of attention on the signing of the RFRA in 2014, which emboldened Gov. Phil Bryant to sign this new law.

Back in February of 2014, the LGBT community was high on marriage equality wins, and also intoxicated by a defeat of a RFRA passed by the Arizona legislature, which GOP governor Jan Brewer vetoed. As happened in Georgia in recent weeks, major companies such as Delta Air Lines and Marriott, as well as the NFL, put pressure on Brewer, who let the controversy build over days rather than signing the anti-gay LGBT bill right away (as was the case in North Carolina two weeks ago with Gov. Pat McCrory). She may not have intended to sign it from the outset, knowing it would hurt the state, so Brewer perhaps allowed the controversy to blow up and then could point to it as the reason for not signing the bill. The same strategy may have been in play on the part of Gov. Deal in Georgia this month. Whatever the case, the euphoria over the defeat -- and idea that hate had been vanquished by companies supportive of LGBT people -- was overblown.

As I've pointed out numerous times, LGBT activists and the media, caught up in victory blindness, were too quick to call Arizona the "turning point," seeing big business supposedly finally coming to the rescue -- only to see bills in other states later in the year and into 2015 that were far worse than Arizona's but which quietly got passed. The following year, Indiana's pulling back from a draconian RFRA was also supposed to be the "turning point." And I'm really afraid that we're going to look at PayPal pulling out of its expansion in North Carolina over that state's new anti-LGBT law-- especially if PayPal and other businesses push the state to do something about the law -- as a "turning point" rather than realize we are in the midst of massive backlash from enemies who aren't giving up any time soon and who will exploit it when we let our guard down.

LGBT leaders and the media need to end the "turning point" narrative -- which is a linchpin of victory blindness -- because it is consistently our own undoing. Within weeks of Jan Brewer's veto in Arizona, the Mississippi legislature passed its RFRA, and legislators there had learned from Arizona, wording their bill more cleverly (but to legal observers, it was no less dangerous), which Gov. Bryant signed virtually under the radar. That's because there was no national uproar from media, big business and LGBT leaders, all still celebrating the Arizona "turning point."

The Mississippi RFRA states that the government "or an action by any person based on state action shall not burden a person's right to exercise religion." Though the law didn't name gay and transgender people, the ACLU and other legal groups believed it would give the very conservative Mississippi courts impetus to allow businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples. Tony Perkins of the anti-LGBT Family Research Council in fact put out a statement in support of the law saying it would "allow a wedding vendor, whose orthodox Christian faith will not allow her to affirm same-sex 'marriage'" to turn away gay couples. Christian evangelical leaders across the country backed the bill and vowed to continue in other states. (They soon made their strategy public, in a Washington Post article headlined, "After veto in Arizona, conservatives vow to fight for religious liberties," and yet LGBT leaders still didn't seem to be paying attention.)

So it's not shocking that Mississippi legislators, seeing no real uproar at the time -- the kind of uproar there had been only weeks earlier in Arizona -- would two years later take that RFRA law and put it on steroids, with a new law that spells out the specificity of brutal discrimination more clearly, targeting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, -- and even targeting heterosexuals who are divorced or who've had extramarital affairs.

It's hard not to think about how the current law might have been prevented if there was an Arizona-sized uproar over the Mississippi RFRA two years ago. Instead, we allowed the "turning point" talk to sway us, lulled as well by all the victories on marriage, while the enemies of equality continued their crusade, undaunted.

Tenneseee and South Carolina are now moving to pass bills determining what public rest room transgender people must use. Kansas passed its own sweeping anti-LGBT "religious freedom" law, with almost no one noticing, two weeks ago. Missouri is moving ahead with one, as are other states across the country, all part of a a full-blown assault. It's great to see businesses standing up, and to sees mayors and governors from cities and states across the country that support LGBT rights banning official travel to the anti-LGBT states.

But this is still about what LGBT citizens and activists do, and how we approach this assault. Hopefully we're realizing -- and the seemingly misdirected LGBT leadership is realizing -- that the enemies of equality will not stop. And hopefully we're realizing that, through trial and error, those opposed to LGBT equality will come up with ever more ugly and successful campaigns -- like "bathroom panic" -- to strip us of our rights. Because, after them, our biggest enemy is our own complacency.

Michelangelo Signorile's book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, is due out in paperback with a new afterword, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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