With its seasonal parfaits, Indianola pecan pies, and multi-layered cakes as tall as hatboxes, Sugaree’s Bakery is well known among the foodies of Mississippi. The proprietress, Mary Jennifer Russell, named the small-batch bakery after a Grateful Dead song and has always run her establishment with a spirit of openness and love. So she was outraged when, last April, Governor Phil Bryant signed a hotly contested and far-reaching piece of anti-LGBT legislation into law.
Before the ink had dried on the bill, Russell had called her contacts in the hospitality business, asking what could be done.
“Our strengths in Mississippi are cultural — food, art, and music,” Russell says. “This is a slap in the face to most of that cultural base.”
Mississippians like Russell are joining together in hopes of reversing the damage to the state’s economy and reputation. Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, has launched a new public-service campaign titled “Everyone’s Welcome Here,” telegraphing an industry-wide message of inclusiveness, which includes providing decals declaring acceptance. “This campaign is about more than a sticker on your door,” says Cashion. “It’s about the values of our industry — values of hospitality and nondiscrimination. Now we’re working with the Mississippi Economic Council,” he notes. “So even more folks are signing on.”
Other campaigns backed by local LGBT rights groups include the “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling” drive. It has been embraced by more than 500 businesses in Mississippi, which have affixed welcoming blue stickers to their doors and windows.
Mississippi native Knol Aust, who designed the sticker, said it was encouraging, albeit surreal, to see local businesses featuring his work. “When you travel to places like the Castro, you see rainbow stickers everywhere,” he says. “But we’d never had that before. So it was exciting to see this pop up in places I never would have expected — like hardware or liquor stores, which typically don’t get involved in politics.”
It didn’t take long for fundamentalist organizations to push back. Buddy Smith, a spokesman for the right-wing advocacy organization the American Family Association, which is based in Tupelo, Mississippi, said, “It’s not really a buying campaign, but it’s a bully campaign, and it’s being carried out by radical homosexual activists who intend to trample the freedom of Christians.”
It’s a sticker. A sticker which speaks to the owner not being a tiny-brained bigot, but a decent, inclusive person working for the greater good. And the campaign is not being carried out by radical homosexual activists, it’s being carried out by your fellow Mississippians, oh my. Somehow, I just can’t work up the tears for you poor, persecuted Christians.
Ironically, Hill notes, HB 1523 could have the unintended consequence of fortifying the movement for equality. “This bill is contributing to a tipping point where people are pushing back vocally. The legislators who pushed this are underestimating its power to generate widespread opposition,” he says. “What they don’t realize is that Mississippians are changing on this issue, as is the rest of the country. We know this through polling data that we have received; people are getting to know their LGBT neighbors, family members, their friends, the people who sit next to them at work or at church.”
In the meantime, Mississippi will continue to burn. Mississippi native Jan Johnson Goldberger, writer-director of an independent, family-friendly feature film, Cupcake & Rocky, is among those in the movie business rethinking plans to shoot in her home state.
“When you enact laws to discriminate, I can’t be a part of that because of my own history as an African American,” she says. “I’m not going to shoot somewhere where they’re actively discriminating against LGBT individuals. My sister is a lesbian, and many of my friends are part of that community. When you enact laws to discriminate against one group of people, you can discriminate against anybody.”
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