By Todd Allen & Zakiya Summers-Harlee
For most of American history, LGBTQ people have been unfairly demonized and criminalized. Harassment, discrimination and violence has not only been tolerated, but also encouraged. This is evident in the political rhetoric from our state and national leadership as well as in the tragic deaths of transgender women of color in our own community. Just recently in our neighboring state of Louisiana, three transgender women were reportedly murdered in Louisiana. Shouldn’t people have a right to live their lives openly without fear?
Let’s take a moment to reflect on three major U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have helped to reduce the unfair discrimination that LGBTQ people face across America and in Mississippi. In 2003,Lawrence v. Texasrecognized the unconstitutionality of all laws against private, consensual activity between same-gender loving adults. Immediately, state and federal “sodomy” laws were removed and a cloud of criminalization was lifted. Next, on June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court declared that federal employees should have the benefits of marriage equality. Then, on June 26, 2016, Mississippians joined the rest of the nation in celebrating the achievement of marriage equality for every person in America with the Supreme Court decision inObergefell v. Hodges.
However, progress toward LGBTQ equality has been met with politicized backlash. Last year, the legislature introduced HB 1523, a bill to “protect freedom of conscience,” allowing individuals and businesses to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. Mississippi leaders incorrectly and unfairly equated the advancement of LGBTQ rights with the loss of religious freedom. All the rhetoric stirred-up more long-standing fears and insecurities around sex and gender. Many Mississippians felt backed into a false choice between religious freedom and supporting LGBTQ equality. After creating a storm, the state legislature allowed their personal prejudices to impede the civil rights of others in the form of blatant LGBTQ discrimination. HB 1523 attempted to return Mississippi to a time when government gave clear support for open harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Mississippians resisted this political posturing. People rallied together outside the governor’s mansion. Lawsuits were filed in federal court, and before HB 1523 went into effect, a federal judge enjoined this unconstitutional law.
At the local level, leaders stood against LGBTQ discrimination in any form. Three Mississippi municipalities recognized June 26, 2016 as the anniversary of the three important Supreme Court decisions. In Natchez, Mayor Butch Brown and the board of aldermen voted to approve a resolution in support of LGBTQ Equality Day that stated, “the City of Natchez does not sanction or tolerate discrimination against its citizens or visitors and seeks to preserve and protect the rights of all individuals regardless of religion or identity.” In Greenville, the city council approved a resolution in support of June 26th as LGBTQ Equality Day, after Mayor Errick Simmons held the deciding vote in favor of the day. In Jackson, Mayor Tony T. Yarber gave a proclamation stating that the City of Jackson stands “in support of safety, respect and rights of the LGBTQ community” and further, “We commit to the advancement of equality for the LGBTQ community.”
Nevertheless, there remain those who want to return to darker times. In September of 2016, a petition was started in the Greenville community and passed around churches to ask for a vote on the LGBTQ Equality Day Resolution. In October, a meeting was held at the Washington County Convention Center to speak against LGBTQ Equality and LGBTQ people. Although the mayor and city council were invited, no city official attended this gathering. Local volunteer activists recorded the homophobic sermons and antagonistic speeches at this meeting. The ACLU of Mississippi received word that there was a growing grassroots response in support of the Mayor and the city council for support of the LGBTQ Equality Day resolution. We sent an official letter of support to Mayor Simmons and to the city council supporting their decision to stand for LGBTQ Equality. The Greenville city council has neither rescinded nor reworded its resolution, a clear victory for LGBTQ Equality in the Mississippi Delta.
Even now, the governor of Mississippi continues to try to push Mississippi backward by appealing the injunction against HB 1523 in federal court, in the process wasting thousands in taxpayer money. The community responded, once again, with a unity rally for LGBTQ equality in December to speak against the governor’s pointless fight to keep HB 1523 alive. Representatives from the ACLU of Mississippi, HRC Mississippi and GLAAD spoke to a crowd of approximately 250 people in front of the governor’s home.
Award-winning singer, writer, producer and native of Waynesboro, MS Tena Clark expressed how deeply troubled she was by the audacity of the governor and state legislature to pass such a heinous bill, which inspired her to write “My, My Mississippi.” At the rally, local vocalist, James Martin, led a volunteer choir that performed a soulful rendition of the song. There words rang out for the governor to hear:
Oh, Oh, My, My, Mississippi/
You keep hatin’, we keep waitin’/
Don’t you wanna heal your past/
Don't you know your ship is sinking fast?"
Well the sweet Magnolia's cryin’/
Cause she knows how good it can be/
She’s waitin’ for the hearts to open/
Open up and set them free
- Tena Clark
We hope our local and state leaders will hear the words of Clark’s song and respond by turning away from that somber history. 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of our state. We know how bad times have been in Mississippi, but we do not yet know, as the song says, “how good it can be.” Only as we work together for the good of everyone will we make the next 200 years outshine our past.
Todd Allen is the former Equality for All Advocacy Coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi. Zakiya Summers-Harlee is the Director of Communications & Advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.