In New York, Mississippi Governor Confronted on Anti-Gay Law

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Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, chats during Central Park picnic while Todd Allen holds up a sign protesting that state’s new anti-gay law. | CALEB-MICHAEL FILES
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, chats during Central Park picnic while Todd Allen holds up a sign protesting that state’s new anti-gay law. | CALEB-MICHAEL FILES

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.

With “religious freedom” law similar to one nixed by Arizona taking effect July 1, Phil Bryant faces GetEQUAL

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?”

GetEQUAL’s Todd Allen gets support from Yazoo City Mayor Diane Delaware. | GAY CITY NEWS
GetEQUAL’s Todd Allen gets support from Yazoo City Mayor Diane Delaware. | GAY CITY NEWS

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.”

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

Evelyn Clay says:
I know many young LGBT professional that left Mississippi for that very reason. They took their talents, their money and their children with them. What a loss!
June 16, 2014, 11:33 am
Nick Nicholas says:
I hope y'all know that the governor's son is openly gay, but Bryant keeps shoving the son back into the closet to protect his political career. This is not "outing" -- the son *is* out, openly living as gay in Texas. The only "outing" happening here is how craven Bryant is that he would gleefully sign a bill making his own son a second-class citizen in his own state with a grinning Tony Perkins, leader of hate group American Family Association, at his side. I tried to sign in using Facebook, because I have no need to post anonymously, but your system wouldn't allow it.
June 16, 2014, 11:35 am
Zach says:
MS Gov. Phil Bryant: A Terrible Example of Love for his Gay Son - Democratic Underground
June 16, 2014, 4:05 pm
JenL says:
I am ashamed of my home state. We are a straight married couple and left in 2008. Best thing we ever did. The economy is far from stable in MS and is funded 3 to 1 buy the federal government. Bryant is a spineless joke and represents everything progressives in the state are trying to change. He and his generation are getting old and dying off; the mentality is dying with them. When these people are gone, MS will progress. Until then, the economy and quality of life indices in the state will continue to plummet toward the abyss. The state ranks dead last, or nearly dead last already. The next step is implosion.
June 16, 2014, 5:19 pm
Nick Nicholas says:
I left 27 years ago for exactly that reason. Everywhere I lived I met *successful* LGBTQ MS natives who had fled the state. It's a real talent drain, and it's a problem. But I'm baaaaack now, and this time I'm tackling things head on. We really need to do something about our best and brightest feeling they have no alternative but to leave the state!
June 17, 2014, 12:05 am
Nick Nicholas says:
Excellent! Sharing as widely as I can.
June 17, 2014, 12:20 am
teerocky says:
Why is it that Phil Bryant would sign a bill that allows legal discrimination for the LGBT community when his own son is gay? His son left Mississippi and moved to Austin TX after being accosted in Hattiesburg because of his sexuality. Phil Bryant and the biggoted minority are destroying the state with their hatred. He needs to be impeached or recalled whichever can be done as fast as possible!!
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