I used to live in St. Louis. There’s a large gay community there, which isn’t what many people from the East or West Coasts might expect. There’s even a gay bar district, The Grove, with clubs like Just John and Attitude and Nancy’s Place — a now-closed lesbian hangout where I performed karaoke for the first and only time. I was at Just John one night when I met a 19-year-old kid, dancing on a neon chair, who told me he’d driven all the way to St. Louis because no one in his very small town could ever find out he was gay. For him, the city was a mecca of safety and warmth and community, and he was willing to drive six hours in one night just to get there.
There are a lot of havens like the one in St. Louis in this country, because there are a lot of places where people still cannot be gay, or bisexual, or lesbian — and, good lord, there are countless places where you cannot be transgender — without feeling a deep sense that people around you do not like and will not accept you. So you go where they will. You drive three hours, you move nine hours, you uproot your whole life just so you can live it.
That life has only gotten harder for LGBT Americans in Missouri, or in places like North Carolina and Mississippi. State governments have passed so-called religious freedom restoration acts and other bills to "protect" people who object to marriage equality, same-sex relationships altogether, and even trans people’s rights to go to the bathroom in peace. Most of these states don’t have LGBT nondiscrimination protections at the state level in the first place, and there are no explicit existing federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people. So, in truth, in states like Oklahoma and Wyoming and Idaho, and in the many, many cities without some sort of nondiscrimination ordinance, people could always kick someone out of their restaurant because they just didn’t like fags. And they still can, but now with religious flair!
I don’t know why some lawmakers are doing this, especially in the states where LGBT people are already most vulnerable. I spoke to one writer, David Harsanyi, who defended such laws on the basis of religious freedom for The Federalist. He said, "I find it disconcerting that anyone would discriminate against an American based on their sexual orientation, or for any other reason. My hope is that it becomes socially unacceptable." And in cities like New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco, it is. Not all the time, and not for everyone, but it’s getting there. For a lot of us, discrimination has become a specter we ran away from when we left our hometowns. But it’s not like that in Mississippi, or North Carolina, or Missouri, or a lot of America — where people can already freely discriminate against LGBT people with abandon.
Allow me to be perfectly clear: Being gay or transgender means facing a life with far more challenges in much of the country than does being Christian in a majority-Christian nation. Supporters of "religious freedom restoration" legislation will tell you that the bills in Mississippi and North Carolina are designed to protect the religious beliefs of those who would apparently find baking a cake for a gay couple to be an experience akin to facing Catherine’s wheel. And those religious beliefs can be deeply felt, but the apparent laser focus on gays and trans people is, shall we say, curious, as if faith can form the bedrock of a well-lived life but will blow away at the sight of a happy and employed transgender person. These bills are not protections from religious discrimination. They are discrimination.
Well-meaning onlookers will tell LGBT people in those places just to leave. Run. Get away while you can, while you’re still young, go somewhere where you can be free. But a lot of the time, those LGBT people have already been to their own St. Louis. They already left their homes and went to more liberal cities in those conservative states — like Jackson, Mississippi, or Atlanta, or Charlotte — somewhere where they could be themselves, and now they’re being told that they will never be safe until they get to New York or San Francisco. Mississippi has the largest percentage of LGBT people raising children in the country, and yet we’ll ask them to take their kids out of school and run to the coasts because they’ll be free there.
I ran. I ran to Washington, D.C. I met my wife here. She’s my whole heart. But I won’t run again, and I won’t ask anyone else to do the same. We — LGBT people — can’t keep running.
The trans person who can’t afford an airplane ticket and might get stopped by security anyway. The lesbian couple with three kids — they can’t be left behind. Mississippi and North Carolina and Missouri — they can’t be left behind. We can’t keep asking people to uproot their lives so that they can start living them.
I guess we’re going to have to fight back instead.