Mississippi College Towns Are Leading the Fight for Gay Rights

Even as the state considers discriminatory legislation, places like Starkville and Oxford are passing "inclusivity resolutions."

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Now that Arizona's governor has (finally) put that state's anti-gay legislation to rest, the focus in the fight for equality has shifted to Mississippi. There, in January, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill called the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" by its supporters and "gay Jim Crow" by LGBT advocates.

In its original form, the bill contained language similar to the controversial Arizona legislation, but went even further. Not only would it have allowed private businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers on the basis of religious belief, it would also let government department heads discriminate in hiring on the same grounds.

But it's hardly been smooth sailing for those who would legislate the right to discriminate in Mississippi (which has the highest per capita concentration of same-sex parents in the nation, according to an analysis of Census data).

The national debate over the Arizona bill, which worried big-revenue-generating entities such as the NFL, prompted closer scrutiny of Mississippi’s pending legislation. Last week, a Mississippi House committee struck its most contentious provisions in an attempt to address criticism from groups like the ACLU.

But many advocates say even its amended form represents a threat to civil liberties. They turned out to protest in the state capital of Jackson yesterday as lawmakers moved the revised bill forward.

"These changes certainly make the bill more specific, and that’s always better with anything legal," activist L.B. Wilson told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "However, it doesn't really change the nature of the bill, so it doesn't allay any of the anxiety or fears that the LGBT community, or in my opinion every community in Mississippi, should have about the bill."

Wilson was in the capital with a group called the LGBTQ Union of Starkville. He had made the trip to protest SB2681 with other residents of that small city in the northeastern part of the state, which is home to the main campus of Mississippi State University. That town made history in January by becoming the first municipality in the state to pass an "inclusivity resolution" that affirmed the worth of LGBT people in the city. The resolution said that discrimination based on sexual orientation (as well as color, religion, and several other categories including source of income) is an "anathema to the public policy" of Starkville.

Starkville’s action was followed quickly by similar resolutions in two other college towns: Hattiesburg, home of the University of Southern Mississippi, and yesterday Oxford, where the University of Mississippi is located.

Those votes may say a lot more about the direction in which Mississippi is headed than does the discriminatory legislation pending in the capital.

A poll conducted by the Human Rights Campaign last year showed that while 55 percent of the overall population in Mississippi is opposed to marriage equality, among people under the age of 30, the picture is very different: support for marriage equality is at 58 percent.

Eddie Outlaw, a business owner in the Fondren neighborhood of Jackson for the past 17 years, says that he has seen a tremendous evolution in the state's attitudes toward its gay and lesbian citizens, despite the recent push to legitimize discrimination. He credits that in part to the way that social media has made the fight for gay rights more visible in the community. Outlaw, who writes for the Jackson Free Press and blogs about being gay in Mississippi, also gives a lot of credit to younger Mississippians and the effect they are having on public discussion.

"I think the youth have played a huge part in educating their parents and relatives," writes Outlaw in an email. "Naturally, college towns like Starkville, Hattiesburg and Oxford have too been influenced by the youth of our state, and I applaud those cities for vocalizing the inclusion of the LGBT community. While these proclamations have no real teeth, they are a big step in the right direction."

Outlaw last year married his partner of 11 years in California, then came home. He is looking forward to a different kind of future in Mississippi, one where the openhearted attitude embodied in the resolutions of the state's college towns becomes the norm, and whereMississippians of all ages can feel not just free from fear and discrimination, but comfortable and fully enfranchised.

“LGBT youth and those that came before them need to know there is a place for them,” says Outlaw. "Especially in Mississippi."

Top image: Agnieszka Lobodzinska /Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.