Several months ago, Mississippi passed a law under the guise of religious freedom that critics said would let authorities turn a blind eye to discrimination against LGBT individuals—who could, for example, be refused services if a business owner believes homosexuality is a sin.
That law didn’t sit well with everyone in the Southern state, where some precious progress has been made to distance Mississippi’s future from its long history of discrimination. Residents from Jackson to Greenville rallied to change the conditions as well as the public’s perception of the notoriously red state.
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On Tuesday, the capital city of Jackson became the eighth and largest city to pass an antidiscrimination resolution protecting the rights of all citizens, including LGBT individuals.
“I know there is more good in Jackson than bad. I want to make sure when the history books are written there was no question where the City of Jackson was,” said Melvin Priester Jr., a Jackson city councilman who sponsored the resolution, according to theJackson Free Press.
Diversity resolutions have also been passed in the Mississippi cities of Starkville, Hattiesburg, Greenville, Magnolia, Bay St. Louis, Oxford, and Waveland.
Mississippi is the fourth-most conservative state in the country, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. In April, a flurry of negative media attention surrounding the passage of S.B. 2681 only extended the bleak picture of equality in the state. Activists eager to change this perception sprang into action, said Morgan Miller, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.
“There’s been a lot of energy at the grassroots level from people who are frustrated with the passage of the religious freedom act,” Miller said. This energy and outpouring of LGBT support has led to action at the street and local government levels.
While these resolutions work as an advocacy technique and education tool, they won’t be able to supersede state law, said Charles Irving, legal director of ACLU of Mississippi. The state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act includes a provision that bars municipalities from passing laws that would usurp the state’s decision.
But activists are hoping their action at the municipality level sends a strong message to the rest of the country.
“By passing the ordinance or resolution, it says that we want to be on the right side of history,” Irving said.
Increasing support for LGBT rights also makes it harder for people to abuse the religious freedom bill, he said. To date, the ACLU hasn’t received any reports of people using the bill to discriminate against gay patrons in Mississippi, but that is something it will be monitoring closely.
For now, some shop owners are standing up to the controversial law by participating in a grassroots pro-LGBT sticker campaign that’s spread throughout Mississippi and beyond. The round blue stickers have a rainbow bar through the middle and read, “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.” More than 2,500 stickers have been distributed to business owners to display on their shop doors and windows.
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One of these stickers is posted on Eddie Outlaw’s salon in the heart of Jackson. Outlaw helped create the sticker campaign and has been a vocal advocate of LGBT rights. He said the antidiscrimination resolution sends a positive message to gay youths that their home state recognizes their value as people.
That’s an affirmation Outlaw didn’t have as he was growing up in a small Mississippi town. He felt isolated as he grappled with his sexual orientation.
“I had no one to look to that was like me. I had no one to identify with,” he said.
Outlaw married his husband last year in Long Beach, Calif., but his home state won’t recognize his union. Still, he’s encouraged by recent progress throughout the country and has seen a shift in many of his fellow Mississippians. He has been a hairdresser for 17 years and said he has seen a latent, subtle support for LGBT rights blossom into something more apparent.
“People that were quietly supportive for so long are now becoming ever more vocal,” he said.
The forward momentum of equal rights in Mississippi will get a boost when the Human Rights Campaign sets up permanent shop in the South. As part of the civil rights group’s Project One America, HRC plans to open headquarters in Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas and push for basic legislative action to protect the rights of LGBT individuals.
HRC said it will start with nondiscrimination ordinances in the housing market and the workplace, which will help protect gay people from discrimination based on their sexual identity or orientation. A poll released in 2013 shows it may have a fighting chance. About 64 percent of Mississippi residents support workplace nondiscrimination protections for LGBT employees, according to a 2013 survey of more than 600 adults.
But the bigger issues, such as legalizing gay marriage, are still a ways off. LGBT advocates hope the Supreme Court will rule on that issue and put the debate to bed once and for all.