It’s Pride Month in Louisiana and around the world, which means that families from LaPlace to Bossier City are pointedly avoiding eye contact when LGBTQ-themed marketing pops up on the television over dinner.
And this is not just any Pride Month.
This year, it’s the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City, the catalyst that sparked the contemporary movement for LGBTQ equality into motion. In 1969, at the time of the uprising, it was illegal to be gay or transgender in every single state except Illnois, which decriminalized same-sex relationships in 1962. In 2003, when the Supreme Court finally ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that laws criminalizing same-sex relationships were unconstitutional, fourteen states, including Louisiana, were enforcing them.
Sixteen years later, our unconstitutional law remains on the books due to successful lobbying by the Louisiana Family Forum, a white Christian nationalist organization intent on preserving the dead letter statute in case there’s a Supreme Court reversal in the future. That’s right. Fifty years after Stonewall, there is still a Louisiana law, albeit an unenforceable one, that criminalizes consensual same-sex relationships.
This history is important. In 2019 in Louisiana, it’s imperative those of us who are LGBTQ and our allies look to our history, study the tactics that have been successful in advancing basic human rights in the past, and incorporate and adapt them to today’s fight.
As recently as the 1980s, LGBTQ Americans had to figure out how to survive a government that was openly influenced by white Christian nationalism. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and James Dobson’s Family Research Council— in essence, the institutional ancestor of the Louisiana Family Forum (founded in 1998) and its sibling organizations across the country — formed deep links with the Reagan Administration through campaign contributions and appointments at all levels of federal government. As a result, nearly an entire generation of gay and bisexual men were ravaged by AIDS before President Reagan even acknowelged the existence of the illness.
But the activists of their time pushed progress further than anyone would have thought possible, achieving government intervention in the HIV crisis, moving new treatments into the market, and birthing a new movement of highly effective activism.
So how did the LGBTQ activists of the 1980s and 1990s force the government to address the HIV epidemic, and at the same time, advance nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people across the country?
They built on a key LGBTQ liberation strategy of the late 1960s and early 1970s to convince a critical mass of LGBTQ people to come out of the closet. They led sustained direct action campaigns, shutting down government buildings, infiltrating news rooms, and throwing pies at anti-LGBTQ spokespeople and politicians. They had difficult conversations with friends and family to hold them accountable for where they lent their political support. They built organizations like the National LGBTQ Task Force and cross-movement relationships to grow power and distribute resources, many of which are still active.
Today, we’re falling short, and I can’t help but worry that the giants of our movement’s past would be disappointed.
For the past several years, the movement for LGBTQ equality in Louisiana has been stuck in gridlock with our opponents. However, we have seen a significant shift in public opinion, more than enough to defeat anti-LGBTQ proposals. According to the most recent polling, conducted last year by Project Right Side, a conservative organization founded by a former Republican National Committee Chairman, 66% of Louisiana support legal protections for LGBTQ people in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
Support transcends partisanship, driven by majorities of Democrats (74%), Independents (61%) and Republicans (60%) alike. Even a majority of Louisianans who have a favorable impression of President Trump (57%) support these legal protections for LGBTQ people.
Yet our legislature has failed to advance these protections, despite the public will and the significant advocacy by LGBTQ Louisianans and their allies.
There are still no state laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, or health care. It is shameful. And while there’s plenty of federal case law that says these protections exist on the federal level, don’t count on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold that position.
In talking with LGBTQ people and allies who haven’t involved themselves in the movement for equality, the most common reason they cite is fear.
I’m writing to ask you to consider whether the consequences you might face are smaller than the collective consequences for LGBTQ people across our state if we fail to progress and secure basic civil rights.
For some of us, particularly black transgender women, the consequences of living authentically can be life-threatening. However, for a great number of us, the risk of speaking out is comparatively small.
I don’t deny that it is possible you could lose your job, your housing, the acceptance of your community, or the support of your family, but in speaking out, you may prevent the violent loss of innocent life of those who are even more vulnerable.
Our survival is important, but this fight isn’t just about us. It’s about the generations that come after us.
Dip a toe into discomfort. Wade into it. Get used to it and then wade out further. Dive deep. Push yourself to do more.
If all you’ve done is call your legislators to politely ask for basic civil rights, you haven’t done enough. It’s not enough to just vote. It’s not enough to just march. Get invested. Organize. Apply pressure. You don’t have to do any of this alone. There are people and organizations already out here waiting for you to join them. Come find us, and we can walk this path together.
Next year, during Pride Month, we should stand together and light the Louisiana state Capitol in rainbow colors, with or without a formal invitation.
And as Harvey Milk said in 1978:
“You must come out. Come out to your parents. I know that it is hard and will hurt them, but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop.”
Come out in Vinton. Come out in Vidalia. Come out in Vivian. Come out in Venice.
There is no corner of our state where you will be alone, even if it feels like it today.