Malaysia Walker has a piece of advice for any lawmaker itching to pass a “religious freedom” law in their state: Take a trip to Mississippi first.
“Go to Mississippi and look at it,” Walker, former trans education and advocacy coordinator with the ACLU of Mississippi, tells NewNowNext. “Drive down, take a flight, and look at it. Look at what it does to a state. I guarantee you they will change their minds.”
A little more than three years ago, Mississippi passed House Bill 1523, which permitted widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people. Also known as the “Religious Liberty Accommodations Act,” the legislation protected religious institutions, private companies, and individuals who wished to deny services, employment, housing, or accommodations on the basis of their “deeply held religious beliefs or moral convictions” that gender is immutable and marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman.
Critics warned that HB 1523 would result in LGBTQ people experiencing prejudice in nearly all forms of public life. It could allow, for instance, an EMT to deny life-saving care to a transgender person who was in a car accident or a hospital to refuse a patient with HIV.
Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson.
The passage of HB 1523 led to major fallout for Mississippi, with companies like Levi Strauss, Nissan, Toyota, and Tyson Foods calling for the law’s repeal. Singer Bryan Adams canceled a concert in Biloxi after Gov. Phil Bryant signed the law in March 2016, while actress Sharon Stone pulled out of a TV miniseries with a production company in Canton. Last year Stony Brook University was barred from playing a three-game series against the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg because of New York’s ban on nonessential travel to the state.
Despite the widespread havoc wreaked on Mississippi’s economy following HB 1523, some Texas lawmakers hope to follow in the state’s footsteps. A proposal filed by House Rep. William Zedler (R-Arlington), House Bill 1035, would grant license to discriminate against LGBTQ people in areas such as employment and housing, as well as marriage licenses, wedding ceremonies, counseling services, medical care, fertility treatments, and public bathrooms.
Advocacy groups warn the passage of HB 1035 would essentially bring Mississippi’s “religious freedom” law to Texas. Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, says the Texas bill “in many ways is a word-for-word copy” of HB 1523, while Masen Davis, CEO of Freedom for All Americans, claims it “would target LGBTQ Texans in virtually every area of their daily lives.”
“We’ve seen time and again that anti-LGBTQ discrimination comes at a high cost,” Davis tells NewNowNext. “Texas lawmakers should heed the warnings of other states who have paid the price and reject these discriminatory attacks on LGBTQ people and their families.”
However, the impact of HB 1523 on Mississippi has not merely been economic. LGBTQ people in the state say the law’s passage has devastated the local community, with fears of discrimination driving many out of the state. Although exact figures on LGBTQ migration out of Mississippi are difficult to come by, Walker says at least “eight to 10 people” just among her close circle of friends had left Jackson by 2018.
“There are people who are attempting to leave as we speak,” she claims. “I get calls every week.”
Walker joined the exodus last year, a decision she says didn’t come easily. A lifelong Mississippian, she worried that she was abandoning her community and giving up the only home she had ever known. However, her health was declining, and Walker feared medical providers in the area would turn her away if they learned she was a transgender woman. As one of the most visible LGBTQ advocates in the state, she felt as if a target were constantly being placed on her back—whether it was going to the doctor or even just eating at a nearby diner.
“Being a person of particular influence in Mississippi, all eyes were on me,” she claims. “I was in fear of what would happen to me or my family. If my family can't live comfortably without looking over their shoulder, then that’s not living.”
U-Haul trailers sit in a parking lot in Biloxi, Mississippi.
The steady stream of U-Haul trucks out of Mississippi is often referred to by locals as the “brain drain.” Even before the passage of HB 1523 in 2016, statistics showed that young people—LGBTQ or not—were leaving the Magnolia State in droves. Between 2010 and 2016, Mississippi lost approximately 35,013 millennials, representing the largest youth diaspora of any state in the country. If that figure were a city, it would be the sixth most populous in Mississippi.
Susan Hrostowski, an episcopal priest who lives in Collins with her wife, tells NewNowNext there are lots of reasons people leave Mississippi, which she calls “the poorest, least educated, and most unhealthy state in the United States.” But when you’re LGBTQ, Mississippi often leaves you with no choice.
“One county over from us, a young man was nearly beaten to death by a group of people,” she says, referring to the April 12 attack on 28-year-old Trevor Gray. “Some people videotaped it, other people watched. Luckily the FBI is calling it a hate crime, but the state of Mississippi does not include LGBTQ people in its hate crime laws. That won't change until we get a different set of lawmakers.”
Gray is not gay, but his attackers thought he was. According to Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger, his attackers called him a “queer” as they “punched him in the face at least 17 times.” His shattered jaw had to be wired shut following the beating.
While it was always legal to discriminate in a state without a single pro-LGBTQ law at the statewide level, many claim the passage of HB 1523 merely emboldened those with animus toward marginalized groups. These prejudices often have a way of overlapping. According to community organizer Arekia Bennett, those most profoundly impacted by the “religious freedom” law are “young, black people of color who are LGBTQ,” many of whom don’t have the financial resources to leave Mississippi.
“Black LGBTQ folks are really at the crux of the blowback of the passing of this piece of legislation,” she tells NewNowNext. “They can't get health care, can't get IDs, and can't get housing. Those are real issues because of the weight of HB 1523.”
Some say high-level cases of discrimination following HB 1523 are relatively rare. Rob Hill, state director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Mississippi chapter, tells NewNowNext he hasn’t witnessed the “appetite for discrimination that a lot of the folks who voted for this imagine that there is,” alleging the law remains unpopular among locals. Surveys on the subject have been divided: Although a 2016 poll showed 63% of Mississippians support HB 1523, a Public Religion Research Institute survey from 2018 found 53% of residents oppose religiously based refusal laws.
But others maintain the discrimination is there if you look hard enough. Walker says one of her “rainbow children” was recently fired by a Mississippi daycare after her former employer requested a copy of her birth certificate. When they saw that her gender marker was listed as “male,” she was allegedly fired on the spot. She worked there for just one day before being dismissed.
“She was heartbroken,” Walker claims. “When she got hired, she felt she was finally making progress, but it made her feel things were not ever going to change in Mississippi. She called me and said, ‘I'm ready to go. I can't deal with this anymore.’”
LGBTQ people who plan to stick it out in Mississippi—because they can’t leave or don’t feel they should have to—say they have developed survival strategies to avoid mistreatment. According to Hrostowski, the community has “gotten wise” about businesses where they know they won’t be welcomed: no Hobby Lobby, no Chick-fil-A. In addition, LGBTQ-affirming restaurants across the state have begun putting stickers on their front doors reading, “If you’re buying, I’m selling.”
There’s only so much LGBTQ people can do to ensure their own safety, however. Two years ago, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit against a funeral home in Picayune that refused cremation services to 82-year-old Jack Zawadski after the passing of his husband, Robert Huskey. Although that case is currently moving through the court system, it will do so without Zawadski: He passed away last year.
LGBTQ Mississippians recounted several other alleged cases of discrimination during interviews: from same-sex couples struggling to find affirming wedding venues to a transgender woman barred from using the bathroom in accordance with her gender identity while studying for her GED. She went miles out of her way just to find a safe restroom after being “terrorized and humiliated,” according to Walker. At one point she was told, “You have to use the men's restroom because that's what you are."
But the truth is that we may never know the scope of discrimination against LGBTQ people in the state. According to Hill, many individuals are afraid to come forward about the prejudice they face in “fear of the kind of retribution they may get.” Just speaking up could get LGBTQ people fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes as long as HB 1523 remains in place.
Texas’ version of the “religious freedom” law—HB 1035—received its first hearing this week. Two years after Republicans attempted to force through an anti-trans bathroom bill, advocates are concerned the legislation could gain serious momentum. Earlier this month the Texas Senate voted in favor of a separate proposal—Senate Bill 17—protecting professionals in over 100 different professions against the loss of licensure if they choose to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community.
According to LGBTQ Mississippians, states like Texas have a choice. They can embrace laws like HB 1523—furthering a culture of terror, silence, and retaliation—or they can do what’s right.
“It's terrifying because you don't know what's going to happen next,” Walker says. “For a state to be considering something this dangerous, it really shows they care nothing about their people. The state is supposed to protect their citizens; nobody is protecting anybody.”