Todd Allen, a gay activist who has lived in Mississippi since 1965, drove all the way to New York City to confront his state’s governor, Phil Bryant, who signed the kind of anti-gay “religious freedom” legislation that even right-wing Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed earlier this year.
The Mississippi law, which goes into effect July 1, is considered a more legalistic, ambiguous version of the Arizona bill allowing people to discriminate if they feel their religious convictions are at stake. Anti-gay leader Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council was present at the bill signing ceremony in April. While the Arizona bill attracted national attention, most shrugged when notoriously conservative Mississippi acted –– but not Allen.
Bryant was in New York for the 35th annual Mississippi Picnic, an event held in the heart of Central Park as an outing for Mississippi natives and ex-pats to celebrate their culture and heritage. It was announced from the stage that when the late Ed Koch was mayor he allowed the event to become the only one in the park authorized to have cooking on site — in this case, native Mississippi catfish.
The Republican governor’s website, which has a “Rising Together” theme, quotes Bryant saying, “I call on every Mississippian, no matter what our race or region or party, to rise above our petty differences and build the Mississippi our citizens deserve.” But while he engaged many Mississippians in small talk in Central Park, he refused to speak to Allen.
Allen, who is affiliated with the Mississippi chapter of the direct action LGBT rights group GetEQUAL, joined by GetEQUAL supporters from New York, held a silent vigil, positioned between the stage that pumped out bluegrass music and booths that promoted tourism, heritage, and cuisine (including Sugaree’s Bakery from New Albany, Mississippi, which makes a mean caramel layer cake and has a rainbow cake among its offerings).
“We’re silent because the governor’s silent,” Allen explained, though he did try to question Bryant from the crowd while the governor, speaking from the stage, proclaimed, “We are a state of the arts and entertainments,” and celebrated Mississippi’s “financial stability.”
Gay City News asked Bryant what the state would do if the federal courts ordered him to open marriage to same-sex couples.
“We’d appeal it,” the governor replied.
And when those appeals fail?
“We’ll decide what to do when that happens,” he said, which is –– so far, at least –– not the same thing as saying he’d block the marriage bureau door.
Also on hand for the picnic was Congressman Gregg Harper, a Mississippi Republican famous for telling Politico that the purpose of the Sportsmen’s Caucus in the House of Representatives was to “hunt liberal, tree-hugging Democrats –– although it does seem like a waste of good ammunition.”
Allen said that when he tried to engage Harper about gay issues, the congressman told him, ‘This is so wrong what you are doing. We’re here celebrating Mississippi’s heritage.”
When Gay City News tried to question Harper, he responded, “This is just a picnic. I’ll just say, ‘Have a nice day.’”
Allen said that on three visits to Washington to join the Human Rights Campaign’s lobby day on Capitol Hill, he was denied the chance to meet with the congressman.
The GetEQUAL picketers passed out fliers reading, “Y’all mean ALL” surrounded by the words “lesbian, white, transgender, black, straight, imprisoned, gay, brown, undocumented.” The flyer asked Bryant, “How can you in good conscience invite New Yorkers, including LGBTQ New Yorkers, to move to Mississippi?”
Many of the picnickers were receptive to the GetEQUAL message. Diane Delaware, the new mayor of Yazoo City, with a population of less than 12,000, stopped to chat and pose for pictures with the group.
“It takes time for states like Mississippi to change,” she said. “I think it will. Those of us who labor for change just have to keep working on it.”
As an African American who moved back to Mississippi from New York eight years ago, Delaware said that on race, “Mississippi has changed tremendously. I left in 1978 and came back in ‘03” to be with her elderly mother. “I love it. It’s different from New York. I don’t think you would find yourself outcast at all. Laws and culture take time to catch up with each other.”
Allen echoed that perspective, saying Mississippians “accept gay people. It’s a minority of politicians and preachers who capitalize on fear” that are the problem, he said.
There is no statewide LGBT rights bill, but seven cities in Mississippi have passed resolutions affirming LGBT rights recently.
“2014 is turning the tide and making Phil Bryant look like a dinosaur,” said Allen, who pointed out that several thousand businesses in Mississippi now display a sticker with a rainbow stripe that says, “We don’t discriminate. If you're buying, we're selling.”
At a June 13 dinner at City Grit in Soho held in conjunction with the weekend's festivities, award-winning Oxford, Mississippi, chef John Currence hosted a Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table. With seven other chefs,the event raised funds for the Pride Networks at the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University, according to the Associated Press. Currence told AP that he wanted to show that Mississippians who celebrate the state’s controversial new law as a blow against gay people “are a tiny minority.”
Benny Ng of the Bronx, who joined the Central Park action along with fellow congregants from the Upper West Side’s Broadway United Church of Christ, said, “Most people seem supportive.”
Asked whether she was referring to Mississippi transplants to New York or the natives in attendance, Ng responded, “Both.”
Caleb-Michael Files of GetEQUAL NY, a recent émigré from Missouri, said, “It’s sad that the governor wouldn’t take 30 seconds to chat with a constituent, especially since Todd drove all the way up here. It’s not fair.”
“I’m experiencing what I know,” said Allen. “The people attending this event understand that hospitality equals equality. And I knew the governor would refuse to speak with me because he wants to advocate more discrimination.”