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An RFRA protest in Indiana. (Photo: Justin Eagan/Wikimedia)

Backlash to Anti-Gay Laws Not a Movement, But the Result of One

Kate Aronoff

 by Waging Nonviolence

There was a showdown this week in Indiana and it had nothing to do with the Final Four — well, almost. Last Friday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law Senate Bill 101, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. While most of the bill’s language consisted of relatively benign legal protections for religious groups, it also would have safeguarded small businesses and corporations alike in refusing business to customers based on their sexual orientation — providing a claim, as well, in lawsuits brought by private citizens. The bill’s definition of religious freedom was so broad as to allow individuals to declare a religion of one and use it as legal grounding in court. A similar law, HB1228, was passed on Tuesday in Arkansas, and drew similar — if less acute — ire.

Opposition to SB101 came from what may seem like unexpected places. Alt-country darlings Wilco and comedian Nick Offerman, a star of the much-loved TV show Parks and Recreation — which took place in Indiana — each canceled performances in the state. Even Miley Cyrus threw her hat into the ring, calling Pence an “asshole” on Instagram. “They are dinosaurs, and they are dying off,” said Cyrus of Republican lawmakers pushing for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “We are the new generation and with that will come so much.”

The governors of Washington, Connecticut and New York banned non-essential travel to Indiana, along with the mayors of Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Oakland and Berkeley. Churches, too, have joined the boycott; the Indianapolis-based Christian Church (Disciplines of Christ) relocated its national convention away from the capitol, saying that support for freedom of religion “cannot impede the freedom of others.”

The fight concluded yesterday, as Indiana lawmakers voted to “fix” SB101 and insert language clarifying that religious freedom does not, in fact, mean open season on other forms of discrimination. Notably, the edits do not represent an expansion of protections for queer Indianians. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson encouraged state senators and representatives to submit language more closely resembling the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, which includes no language allowing for store owners to refuse business to queer patrons. A bill reflecting that call was passed through the state house and signed into law by Hutchinson Thursday afternoon, though that legislation — unlike Indiana’s — does not include specific language addressing non-discrimination.

Republican lawmakers, as the New York Times reports, “supported the changes … out of a concern for perception and potential economic damage [more] than out of a belief that the original bills were flawed or that they sanctioned discrimination.” Conservative Indiana state senator Scott Schneider told the Times that, while he disagreed with the edits, he saw them as “necessary for the economic viability of the state.”

In sum, the states stood to lose business. The NCAA is headquartered in Indianapolis and currently hosting the Final Four there, which is a cash cow for the state. The association was quick to come out against the original bill, stating that “NCAA core values call for an environment that is inclusive and non-discriminatory for our student-athletes, membership, fans, staff and their families.” The city’s NBA and WNBA teams, the Pacers and Fevers, respectively, also renounced the bill in a joint statement. As evidenced by recent controversy around the NCAA’s failure to pay its student-athletes while raking in profits, the NCAA and NBA are businesses first and foremost; their reasons for opposing Senate Bill 101 are more about money than morality.

And they aren’t alone. Major corporations were among the bills’ most vocal critics. Walmart released an official statement on HB1228 calling it a threat to “the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas,” asking Hutchinson to veto the legislation. Business review website Angie’s List canceled a planned $40 million expansion of their Indianapolis headquarters. Apple CEO Tim Cook, who is gay, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post saying that the legislation “go[es] against the very principles our nation was founded on, and they have the potential to undo decades of progress toward greater equality.”

These executives may well have a deep-down affinity for the queer community. Like most corporate magnates’ political stances, however, their opposition to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 1.0 is strictly business. With 37 states now allowing same-sex marriage, public — and, consequently, consumer — opinion has been effectively mobilized against the type of outright bigotry that SB101 and HB1228’s most hawkish supporters sought to protect, even in solidly red states like Arkansas.

Calling the backlash against the bills a movement in itself, though, isn’t exactly right: It’s the result of one. If the same states had decided to take away women’s right to vote it wouldn’t be to the credit of the National Organization of Women or other feminist organizations that people were outraged. Ninety-five years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, Americans — with the possible exception of a few curmudgeonly Internet trolls — are united in the consensus that women deserve access to our country’s democratic processes. It’s very likely that the response to anti-suffrage legislation would be similar to the one against SB101: rapid, spontaneous and widespread. Like women’s right to vote, queer Americans’ basic legal rights are steadily becoming part of our national identity.

Is the patriarchy over? Of course not. But sustained, strategic organizing has affected a cultural shift that has brought socially acceptable treatment of both women and the queer community to a new level. It wasn’t the 19th Amendment itself that changed the conversation about women’s right to participate in democracy. Similarly, legislation supportive of gay marriage is not what created and then changed the national conversation about sexual orientation. By bringing their issues out in public, groups like ACT UP! and the National Women’s Party used confrontational, outward-facing strategies to force a national conversation about equality. Standing on a shifting cultural landscape, lawmakers were left with no other choice than to concede at least some ground to protesters, even if those concessions fell far short of the movement’s more liberatory calls. The fight for equity along the lines of gender and sexuality continues, but will be built on the foundation of landmark legal and cultural victories that have made increasingly radical demands possible.

It’s through the power of movements — not the goodwill of celebrities and corporations — that support for gay, lesbian and otherwise queer Americans’ rights is well on its way to becoming non-negotiable.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Kate Aronoff

Kate Aronoff

Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style

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