On a road trip to visit relatives in Georgia, our family traveled across the states that have become the newest battlegrounds in the latest phase of the “culture wars.”
With my husband’s family in Michigan and my family in Georgia, we don’t visit very often. When both sides of the family dropped hints that it had been four years since our last visit, we resolved that 2016 would be the years we caught up with family visits.
At lot has changed in the four years since we last visited my family in Georgia; the kids have gotten bigger, we’ve gotten older. But the biggest change in the country is that in 2015 the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, granting all the rights and protections of marriage to same-sex couples, and overturning state laws and amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage. The backlash began shortly afterwards, as bakers and county clerks refused wedding cakes and marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and states like Indiana and Arkansas passed laws to protect them for exercising their “religious freedom” in doing so — only to face a huge and costly backlash themselves.
Our journey from Maryland took us across the states that have become the latest battlegrounds in the backlash to marriage equality.
● Virginia: We took I–495 west and stopped for breakfast in Virginia, where the Republican controlled state legislature passed a “religious freedom” bill prohibiting state agencies from punishing religious organization, couched as a proactive effort to protect clergy and religiously affiliated schools from “persecution” for opposition to marriage equality.
● North Carolina: We traveled further south on I–95 for almost 300 miles, which took us into North Carolina. There, an ordinance adding sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status as protected characteristics in public accommodations had passed the Charlotte city council by a vote of 7 to 4 and was set to take effect on April 1. In response, Republican governor Pat McCrory said the Charlotte ordinance, which included a provision allowing transgendered people to use restrooms at public facilities based on their gender identity, was “the wrong thing to do.” McCrory pledged support for a “legislative intervention.” That came in the form of a special session that fast-tracked legislation preventing local governments from passing ordinances prohibiting discrimination beyond a state standard based on race, religion, color, national origin and biological sex. Barely 12 hours passed from the bill’s introduction to McCrory’s signature. Legislators were given a five-minute break to read the bill, which also prohibited cities from increasing minimum wages or legislating paid sick leave, and requires transgender people to use bathrooms that are in accord with the gender on their birth certificates.
● Georgia: Eventually we took I–20 west into Georgia, where the Republican-controlled legislature passed a “religious liberty bill” that started out as the “Pastor Protection Act,” intended to protect members of the clergy who refused to officiate at same-sex weddings. The bill was expanded to allow businesses, nonprofits and individual to discriminate against LGBT people and others on the basis of “sincerely held” religious beliefs, even in the face of local ordinances that would prohibit such discrimination. The bill was so broad that it would even protect the Ku Klux Klan, and allow state-funded agencies from adoption agencies to drug treatment programs to discriminate against LGBT people
Living in a progressive county in Maryland, we’ve never run into problems as a family, even though we don’t exactly “blend”; we’re an interracial, middle-aged couple raising two African-American boys. Anyone who sees us in public sees us interacting with one another and our children, and hears them calling us “Daddy” and “Papa” quickly figures out that we’re a family.
After living here for so many years, we don’t expect negative reactions. We don’t worry about where we eat or shop, or whether someone will refuse us service. But this trip back home took us through states where legislatures voted to protect the people who might have discriminated against us. That forced us to think about the possibility that we might face discrimination, and how best to avoid experiencing it and exposing our children to it.
We stopped for breakfast in Northern Virginia, where we felt we were less likely to have problems. But we resolved to spend as little money as possible in North Carolina, where governor McCrory’s signature hadn’t quite dried on the state’s hastily passed anti-LGBT law, stopping only for bathroom breaks and maybe enough gas to get us out of the state.
The bills in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and other states expose a growing rift between “business-friendly” Republicans and religious conservatives. LGBT organizations have been reaching out to corporate America for years, lobbying companies to implement their own internal nondiscrimination policies on sexual orientation and gender identity. Today, 89 percent of the Fortune 500 prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 66 percent prevent discrimination based on gender identity.
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At the same time, public opinion has shifted. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of Americans, and 70 percent of millennials, support same-sex marriage. These changes mean that corporations have even more incentive to look out for their employees’ rights, and they face less risk in speaking out against discriminatory legislation and policies.
For GOP leadership, that split means chasing one side or the other, or navigating a course through the every widening gap between them. (In Virginia, the state’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, vetoed his state’s “religious freedom” legislation as expected.)
● McCrory struggled to defend North Carolina’s bill as major corporations and more than 90 major business leaders denounced the law, and sports organizations like the NBA and NCAA threatened to take their events out of the state.
● Georgia governor Nathan Deal spoke out against his state’s “religious freedom” bill, but took several days to announce that he would veto it. Meanwhile major corporations like Salesforce and 373K threatened to leave the state, and entertainment companies like Disney and Marvel Comics said they would abandon the state as well, threatening the state’s burgeoning movie industry, which filmed more than 250 movies and television shows in the state last year.
For families like mine, and countless other LGBT Americans, it means having to constantly think about how to navigate through our day-to-day lives and meet our most basic needs without encountering discrimination.
Let me put it this way. My family and I visited Georgia for five days. On Monday the governor of Georgia vetoed a bill that would have protected the owners or managers of the hotel if they refused to rent a room to us or refused to honor our reservation because we are a same-sex couple.
The bill that Governor Deal vetoed would have protected the owners or managers of the restaurants where we ate if they refused to serve our family because we are a same-sex couple.
The bill that Governor Deal vetoed would have protected the management at the pool where we took the kids if they refused to allow us to swim there because we are a same-sex couple.
The governor vetoed a bill that would have protected the owners or managers of every shop we visited if they refused us service because we are a same-sex couple.
The governor vetoed a bill that would have protected any number of businesses from legal recourse had they discriminated against us for being a same-sex sex couple.
Governor Deal vetoed a bill that could have made “We don’t serve your kind here” a familiar phrase in Georgia.