While other states have seen a major backlash from businesses against measures that allow discrimination against LGBT individuals, Mississippi was never bound to see a similar reaction due to the state’s beleaguered economy and largely conservative culture.
After the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill that will allow businesses deny services to LGBT individuals and let religious groups fire individuals who hold different religious beliefs, the legislation did see opposition from major employers in the state like Nissan, Toyota, Tyson Food, Inc., and Hyatt. But just four days after the bill was sent to his desk, Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed it into law on Tuesday.
Given the state’s economy and culture, state lawmakers likely did not feel the same pressures that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) was under in 2015 and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) felt just last week.
The economy in Mississippi is different from those many other states that have recently addressed legislation impacting the LGBT community. The state, which has one of the lowest GDPs in the country, is not home to any Fortune 500 companies, lacks a significant tech sector, and has no major pro sports teams.
With relatively nascent LGBT movement, Mississippi was not ripe for the kind of backlash the country has seen recently in Georgia and North Carolina, where Atlanta and Charlotte house major national corporations, more established LGBT communities, and cosmopolitan attitudes. Mississippi has no major metropolitan area.
Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, a LGBT advocacy group that does work in Mississippi and North Carolina, told TPM that Mississippi lacks the “nexus where the corporate world meets the political world meets the cultural world” that exists in states like Georgia and North Carolina.
“We just see a very different economic climate there and a very different network of relationships between the corporate sector, the political sector, and advocates,” she said of Mississippi. She said it’s challenging for LGBT people to work their way up the corporate ladder in Mississippi, which she said “creates one further level of impediment, one further reason why a major employer wouldn’t be able to sort of very nimbly pivot in a moment like this and speak out politically.”
She added that while major companies like PayPal, in addition to the NBA, have spoken out against anti-gay legislation in North Carolina, there’s a “different economic footprint in Mississippi.” Beach-Ferrara said that many of the larger companies in Mississippi are “oriented more conservatively.”
And in order for opposition from major companies to persuade state lawmakers to change course, the public needs to be ready to debate the issue, according to Megan Robertson, an Indiana GOP political operative who helped lead the fight against the Indiana legislature’s attempt to add its ban on same-sex marriage to the state constitution in 2014.
“I think culturally, Mississippi is in a different point of their journey than Indiana was and is currently. But I also think our economy is just a lot different here in Indiana. When Eli Lilly and Co. stands up and says something, it matters,” Robertson told TPM. “They were the backbone of our economy here in Indianapolis.”
Robertson said that input from corporations didn’t matter in Indiana “until we were culturally ready as well,” and she suspects the same applies in Mississippi.
“Part of it is also the right timing from a political perspective, from a cultural perspective,” she said.
Robertson said that if the average person in Mississippi doesn’t have a problem with legislation, then even if the biggest company in the state speaks out against the bill, it wouldn’t have an impact.
And given the conservative culture in Mississippi and the limited presence of LGBT advocacy, this is likely the case.
“The political climate in Mississippi remains quite conservative on the whole. We are seeing increasing levels of support for LGBT issues around the kitchen table and anecdotally in families, but when you look at, say the public discourse say around the Confederate flag issue, I think that’s a very accurate barometer of how conservative the rhetoric and discourse in the public square continues to be in Mississippi,” Beach-Ferrara told TPM.
“So even a corporation that might have relatively inclusive hiring practices day-to-day, might have a higher degree of reticence about being a vocal proponent of LGBT issues publicly in Mississippi versus a different environment,” Beach-Ferrara continued.
She noted that while there’s a large population of same-sex couples in Mississippi, the state sees the least funding in the country for LGBT issues.
“What we see in Mississippi on a human and community level is that the need is there, that the population is there, but we don’t see the same kind of institutional support or institutional relationships in terms of the LGBT organizing that you might see in a state like Georgia where there’s decades of history of relatively robust funding coming out of the Atlanta area, as it’s a major hub for corporate operations,” she said.
Beach-Ferrara added that the LGBT community in the state is “relatively nascent still.”
“It’s just in the last couple years that there’s really been a public movement and increased visibility as a community,” Beache-Ferrara said, adding that it hasn’t “trickled widely into the business sector.”