April 20, 2024 10:40 am
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In Scrapping Its LGBTQ-Related Travel Ban, California Pivots to ‘Hearts and Minds’

Credit: iStock

by Matt Vasilogambros, NC Newsline

In September, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom officially repealed California’s 2016 ban on state-funded travel to states with laws targeting LGBTQ+ people.

The idea behind the ban — which applied to bureaucrats, lawmakers, academics and even college athletes — was to use California’s economic heft to dissuade other states from enacting such laws. By that metric, it was an abysmal failure; in the past seven years, the number of states with objectionable laws increased from four to 26.

Now, California is going to show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community using a different strategy: a public messaging campaign in conservative-leaning states designed to spread a nonpartisan message of acceptance.

The campaign, dubbed the Bridge Project (or its much longer legislatively given name, Building and Reinforcing Inclusive, Diverse, Gender-Supportive Equality Project), is still in its early stages and is not slated to launch until next year.

But the project will operate out of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, which is run by former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers. The Ad Council, a nonprofit focused on public service announcements, will create the media campaign, helped at first by a $5 million allotment by lawmakers and later with private donations.

A campaign that promotes social equity, civil rights and antidiscrimination is a more effective strategy than a travel ban, said Democratic Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur.

“What we really need to do is do our best to try to change hearts and minds,” he said in an interview. “And make sure that LGBTQ community members and organizations in other states don’t feel alone. We don’t want to give up on providing California leadership in other states.”

In signing the bill, Newsom echoed those thoughts, saying it “helps California’s message of acceptance, equality and hope reach the places where it is most needed.”

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While “very cathartic,” the travel ban was not just ineffective, it probably was counterproductive, said Dan Schnur, one of California’s leading independent political commentators and a former Republican strategist.

The ban isolated individuals in these states who would most benefit from interaction and outreach and isolated California, he added.

“[The Bridge Project is] a start,” said Schnur, who is also a professor at several universities, including the University of California, Berkeley.

“It’s not the type of project that’s going to lead to a massive shift in public opinion,” he added, “but if nothing else it provides a message of support and reassurance for people in those states who greatly benefit from that type of solidarity.”

A doomed travel ban

In 2016, the North Carolina legislature passed a measure that required its residents to use the public restrooms of their biological sex at birth, essentially targeting transgender people. Nationwide outrage among LGBTQ+ allies erupted, and some Democratic lawmakers around the country decided to act.

More than a dozen states — among them Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington — also banned official state travel to the Tar Heel State. (It is unclear whether the state travel restrictions are still in place, since many of the governors who issued the orders are no longer in office.) The pressure on North Carolina, which also included protests by employers and sports leagues and canceled conventions and concerts, seemed to work, at first. Facing an economic hit of an estimated $3.76 billion, according to a 2017 analysis by The Associated Press, North Carolina repealed the law. Those financial losses included PayPal backing out of a $2.66 billion facility.

California’s top officials publicly enforced its travel ban with vigor. Democratic Attorney General Rob Bonta added Missouri, Nebraska and Wyoming to the ballooning list of banned states in July, saying the new laws in those states “aren’t just discriminatory, they constitute a clear case of government overreach.”

But privately, there was building frustration, confusion and annoyance.

With the election of former President Donald Trump and the rise of his brusque, divisive style of politics, Republican-led states plowed ahead with new restrictions on transgender people, bans on drag shows in the presence of children and the removal of LGBTQ+-themed books from schools.

California’s travel ban caused some political headaches, as well. When Newsom went on a family vacation in July 2022 to Montana — one of the banned states — Republicans were quick to point to the hypocrisy of the trip, while the governor’s office and fellow Democrats said the criticism amounted to fake outrage.

At the same time, a growing number of critics emerged from academia.

A ban on state-funded travel to these targeted states meant that many university students and professors at the massive University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges systems, encompassing 146 schools, couldn’t pursue their research, scour archives or interview people in person.

The travel ban even kept some scholars from pursuing research on LGBTQ+ history and issues, said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, a Washington, D.C.-based professional organization of more than 11,000 historians that urged the California legislature in 2021 to carve out an academic exception in the law.

“Surely we want to learn about LGBTQ+ culture and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people,” he said. “The prohibition on using state funds for the purposes of learning was counter to the intent of the statute.”

Clearly, California’s travel ban wasn’t having an impact anymore, said Assemblymember Zbur, who is from Los Angeles. His fellow lawmakers needed to shift their approach.

Can an inclusive message land?

The Bridge Project was conceived by Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who grew up in a conservative community in rural southwestern Virginia. As a lesbian, that was challenging and lonely, she has said.

People are more accepting of people they know, and a project to make that connection can foster acceptance, she argued during the bill’s debate.

That will be a challenging task, especially looking at the national landscape. National attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people have shifted positively. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 61% of Americans thought same-sex marriage was positive for society, compared with 31% in 2004.

But anti-LGBTQ+ legislative attacks have continued.

Just this year, the American Civil Liberties Union tracked 496 anti-LGBTQ+ bills throughout the United States. In some of those states, Republican governors such as Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt banned official state travel to California, in a tit-for-tat move. Meanwhile, Newsom continues to hammer Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and others in the GOP with gusto.

(Stitt’s office did not respond to questions about whether the travel ban would remain in place or whether officials would welcome California’s shift in policy.)

Some in California are skeptical that a media campaign can land effectively in those states.

“It was a statement of California values,” said Marc Stein, a professor of LGBTQ+ history at San Francisco State University who lambasted the state’s travel ban for academics in a 2021 essay. He argued that he wasn’t opposed to the travel ban generally; he just wanted a special carve-out for universities.

“I do really see [the Bridge Project] as window dressing,” Stein said in an interview. “It was very clever to ease the theatrics of taking this step backwards.”

The money being used for a media campaign should have funded something like the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, he said.

The Bridge Project bill earned some bipartisan support. While most Republicans in the California legislature voted against the measure, citing the money the state will spend on the Bridge Project, some GOP lawmakers backed it, including Assemblymember Marie Waldron.

She opposed the original travel ban back in 2016 and jumped at the possibility of overturning it.

And though Waldron is hesitant about the amount of money the state will spend on an interstate messaging campaign — pointing to the state’s budget deficit and homelessness crisis — she understands the need for it and thought “there was more good in the bill than bad.”

“I don’t think we should be discriminating against anybody,” she told Stateline. “I don’t see anything wrong with reminding people of being tolerant.”

This report was first published by Stateline.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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