I had not expected to feel anything particularly religious in the basement of the Louisiana capitol building on the morning of May 19. I’d come with friends and colleagues – other LGBT activists like me – to the public committee hearing of HB 707, the “Marriage and Conscience Act.” I’d been primed to expect hurtful words from proponents of the bill, which included provisions to drastically limit the state’s right to take disciplinary action against businesses, nonprofits and licensed professionals who deny services to same-sex couples or their families on the basis of a “sincerely held religious belief.”
I had not expected, however, to feel so emotionally transported by the morning’s proceedings, to feel, in certain moments, exactly as I used to feel in Catholic mass as a teenager, kneeling with my forehead pressed into the pew before me, crying silently, hoping no one could see.
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“House Bill 707,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, the author of the bill, “has been called by some of the top scholars in our country as timely, necessary and well-justified.” He explained that, despite the bill’s “many mischaracterizations,” it really only does one thing: codify legal protections for those who have a moral or religious conviction about the nature of marriage as being between one man and one woman.
The conservative Christians’ fear of me and other LGBT people, however irrational, was absolutely genuine.
“It would protect these people from discrimination,” Johnson said to a room half full of Louisiana gay, lesbian and transgender people – a small representative slice of the LGBT population of our state, which, according to a recent study by the Movement Action Project, ranks lowest in the nation for legal protections afforded to LGBT people. In fact, with the exception of those living in Orleans Parish and Shreveport beneath protective local ordinances, LGBT Louisianans can be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity with no legal recourse.
But then, Johnson was not speaking to us. He was speaking to the other half of the room, those whom he intended to protect with his bill: the conservative Christians of the Deep South.
According to the testimonies offered by proponents of the bill, a wave of oppression has begun to sweep the Christian community, punctuated by episodes of “intense persecution,” according to Fran White, a housewife of seven who spoke in favor of the bill. She shared with the committee a variety of profiles of people who had endured “abuse” for their religious beliefs – including, of course, Melissa and Aaron Klein, an Oregon couple whose bakery was sued after they refused to bake a wedding cake for two lesbians.
When Johnson was asked by a colleague, toward the end of the meeting, whether or not such cases of persecution against Christians were actually prevalent, he hesitated, and admitted that, no, as of the present time such cases were not terribly common, but that come late June, pending the favorable Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, it was not only conceivable, but, according to Johnson, a fact that “religious institutions are likely to face discrimination in this era of marriage redefinition.”
This seemed to be the crux of the argument for the bill. Would seminaries and religious colleges soon be legally required to provide housing for same-sex couples? And if so, isn’t that discriminatory?
The absurdity of this argument – that a law should be created to pre-empt the possible future moral discomfort of a religious group at the expense of those already suffering under substantive, present-tense discrimination in our state – did not surprise me nearly as much as my own reaction to hearing it. As a queer liberal activist and a child of the suburban South, I had expected to find the supporters of the bill humorous, pitiable and crazy. Instead, I felt hurt and angry. I thought of the earnest letter I’d written to the committee chairman a few days earlier, in which I’d argued that the bill would drive away young, bright people like me and my children from the state. It occurred to me, with a sad little lurch, that Johnson and his supporters probably intended to drive me away, and would likely prefer to live in a state populated by those who did not force them to acknowledge a reality about love that flew against everything they’d been raised to believe was true.
“Anybody could have turned us away had I not lied and told them that I was her sister.”
But then I thought about my own process of coming out of the closet, the long and difficult years spent acknowledging and accepting all parts of myself, realizing that my future would likely look very different from how I was raised to believe it would. I remembered all the times I acted out of fear during those years – all the petty dramas I stoked, the inflammatory words I’d flung at those who meant me no harm – all motivated by the consuming fear that I would not be loved as a gay person. That my fear was irrational (I was surrounded largely by loving, supportive friends and family) did nothing to keep me from acting out on it.
Remembering all those dysfunctional behaviors allowed me, for a moment, to forgive the conservative Christians in the basement that morning. Their fear of me and other LGBT people, however irrational, was absolutely genuine. I know how impossible it sometimes feels to act appropriately when you’re afraid, so even then, I was able to forgive them a little for their melodrama, hurtful words and judgment.
And despite my wholehearted disagreement with their convictions, I can’t help but admire the bill proponents’ sense of civic responsibility, their willingness not only to engage in the democratic process by showing up that morning for the meeting, but by showing up in force, with written testimonies and photocopied handouts. It was, after all, more than most of my liberal friends had been willing to do.
But even as I empathized with their fear, I remained painfully aware that the bill’s supporters sought to threaten the health, happiness and basic rights of people like me throughout Louisiana.
Bills like HB 707 go on to become laws that force LGBT people into humiliating and painful situations in moments of crisis. I listened as Dr. Jody Gates, a retired pediatric pulmonologist, sat before the committee and admitted to lying to hospital administrators when her wife and partner of more than 50 years was sick in the emergency room.
“Anybody could have turned us away had I not lied and told them that I was her sister,” she said.
“HB 707 does not fairly acknowledge the balance of faith and civility, or the balance of church and state.”
Businessmen spoke about the devastating economic effect the law would have on our state – a projected loss of $65 million, according to Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau – citing the backlash in Arkansas and Indiana following the passage of similar legislation in the past year.
The testimonies that touched me most, however, were those of the progressive Christian ministers. One after another, Baptist, Episcopalian and Methodist, they spoke about Jesus’ love for all people and of their church’s acceptance of LGBT parishioners and clergy.
“Now, I’ve heard many of you say that this bill could potentially ensure my own freedom of religious conscience,” said Rev. Patti Snyder, a Presbyterian pastor from Baton Rouge. She went on to explain that, for more than 25 years, despite her own sincerely held belief that gay and lesbian persons should be able to marry just like everyone else, she has never performed a same-sex marriage in our state.
“In this way, my free exercise of religion has been compromised for 25 years,” she said. “I have acted against my conscience because it is in keeping with the law.
“This balance is really tough,” she said. “[HB 707] does not fairly acknowledge that balance – the balance of faith and civility, the balance of church and state. It does not promote mutual forbearance. I must speak in opposition to it.”
Again and again, I felt myself moved to tears by these religious leaders’ testimonies.
I realized, sitting there in the legislative chambers, that the last time I’d felt this stirred up was in high school, when I’d still been a practicing Catholic, kneeling on Sundays beneath the stained-glass windows as the priest lifted up the body of Christ, intoning: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed. I used to cry regularly at this moment in mass, feeling the same upsurge of gratitude I’d felt listening to all those progressive ministers speak at the capitol building – this overwhelming sense of relief that God or anyone could love me completely, considering all that was sinful and unworthy inside me, which included, of course, my half-understood, repressed sexuality.
We have got to find it in ourselves to urge our allies to join us. We have got to stop giving our despair so much power.
That I would still feel so moved almost 10 years later, half a decade into acceptance of myself and surrounded by support, speaks, I think, to the lasting damage that’s done to LGBT people by institutionalized homophobia and transphobia, by moving daily for years through a world that tells us in a hundred quiet ways that we are not worthy of marriage, of security in housing and employment, of wedding cakes and flower arrangements, or of pleasure, dignity and love. Sitting there in the capitol, tears in my eyes, I could actually feel the shame I’d internalized over the years triggered into a flare-up by everything I’d seen and heard.
This shame is the end product of laws that enshrine and protect discrimination – whether by race or religion, economic status, sexual orientation or gender identity – because such laws foster a culture of tolerance for quiet little acts of bigotry, the kind that accumulate inside those targeted until they find themselves feeling what I did that morning: pain.
In the end, the committee decided – by a bipartisan vote of 10-2 – to table the bill. I left the capitol optimistic about the future, imagining joy for my girlfriend and me, for the family I hoped to raise here in my state, but my satisfaction evaporated shortly: Hours after lawmakers voted the bill down, Gov. Bobby Jindal – among the most reviled leaders in our state’s recent history, in an apparent move to draw media attention toward his upcoming bid for the presidency – issued an executive order, undercutting his legislators and enacting the intent of the bill for the 20 government agencies within the executive branch for the remainder of his term in office.
The news launched me into anger and despair – the same despair that had kept me, in the campaign leading up to the committee hearing, from phoning all my liberal, well-intentioned friends and inviting them to join me in fighting the bill. I hadn’t wanted to disturb or annoy them, and had felt more comfortable in my sense of powerlessness than I did in asking for their help.
This, however, is exactly what we – the LGBT people in Louisiana and elsewhere facing legislative discrimination – need to learn how to do. We have got to find it in ourselves to urge our allies to join us. We have got to stop giving our despair so much power. If every queer and trans person in the capitol building that morning had brought two allies – or had two allies make calls on their behalf to legislators in the weeks preceding the hearing – we could have easily outnumbered the opposition and shown our legislators a more proportionally accurate reflection of their constituency, a majority of which in fact support same-sex marriage equality.
Because despite the favorable numbers at the polls – 63 percent voting in favor of same-sex marriage equality nationally – gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in conservative states are still vulnerable to laws like Louisiana’s Marriage and Conscience Act, even in the wake of a favorable Supreme Court ruling. We need everyone – straight folks, business owners, parents, siblings, friends – to make phone calls, write letters and come with us if you can to these meetings. Allies in other states can donate to organizations like Equality Louisiana and Louisiana Trans Advocates. The far right has always done a good job funding its causes; there is no reason we can’t do the same.
“Gov. Jindal is clearly trying to leave the biggest mess possible,” said Equality Louisiana organizers in a written statement after the executive order was issued. “In the end, his extreme ideology is only making the state a worse place for those of us who actually plan to live here past his last day in office.”
No matter what happens in late June, and whatever mess Bobby Jindal makes in the law books of our state, we will inherit it. That mess is ours. And while we have little say in how our governor conducts himself in the last days of his term, the way we engage with the mess he leaves is entirely up to us.