As Gov. Bobby Jindal prepared Saturday for his prayer rally, sponsored by a group that argues hurricanes are divine retribution for same-sex marriage, Baton Rouge’s most prominent gay activist, Joe Traigle, prepared to close on a new home — in Charlotte, North Carolina.
After a lifetime in Louisiana, the 71-year-old grandfather is leaving. “You wake up one day, and you realize that you don’t really feel welcome here,” Traigle said.
Over 43 years in Baton Rouge, the Belle Chasse native was a state secretary of revenue, president of the bank that built the tall black office building prominent in Baton Rouge’s skyline, a president of the Chamber of Commerce and the business partner of a governor. He also helped lead two efforts — the most recent failed in August — to pass a fairness ordinance in Baton Rouge, arguing that equality is an economic development measure. Large corporations — most have nondiscriminatory clauses — typically avoid locating in places where their employees are not comfortable.
The Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative Christian lobbying group, contended sexual orientation should not be a legally protected class.
In 2004, 78 percent of Louisiana’s voters approved a constitutional amendment to forbid state government from recognizing same-sex marriages or civil unions. The legislation’s chief sponsor was U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana’s latest political hero.
An effort last year to tidy up the state’s criminal code and remove an anti-sodomy law that was found unconstitutional in 2003 was voted down 27-67. Legislators worried about the safety of children.
Hating on gay people apparently has little political downside in Louisiana.
Consequently, gay people and lesbians in this state can’t marry. They can be fired from their jobs. They can be evicted from their apartments. They pay a higher rate of taxes and cannot include their partners on health insurance plans. Spouses can be barred from holding their same-sex partner’s hand at death.
Still, each session sees a quixotic parade of 20-somethings at the State Capitol, asking legislators to lighten up or else they’ll have no choice but to move. “They don’t hear the right language from the political and religious and business leaders,” Traigle said.
Jindal backs “traditional marriage” as being between one man and one woman. But the governor carefully threads through the harsh anti-gay speech of his supporters.
Jindal defended the right of free speech when Phil Robertson, of “Duck Dynasty” fame, likened same-sex unions to bestiality and said black people were happier before achieving civil rights.
He has focused on the need to pray in the run-up to Saturday’s rally, which was sponsored by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Mississippi, group whose main spokesman, radio host Bryan Fischer, said African-Americans are “people who rut like rabbits” as a result of welfare programs. He also likens gay people to terrorists and argues that homosexuality should be criminalized.
Jindal’s rhetoric, while not explicitly anti-gay, contains all the code words and links LGBT lifestyles with the fear that Christianity is under attack, a notion that energizes a segment of conservative Protestants, Traigle said. It’s all for political gain because a fearful electorate is one that makes sure to vote.
“This is his base. That’s who follows him around,” Traigle said. “They may vote, but they don’t represent the mainstream thinking in this state.”
In the end, Traigle said, it was just easier to go somewhere else. He’ll be closer to his grandchildren. He can live openly with his partner of 20-plus years. And the city’s leaders won’t openly scorn him.
Mind you, Charlotte is not some lavender town.
It’s the home of evangelist Billy Graham and most of the NASCAR race teams. Its signature food is pork shoulder, barbecued in the “Lexington style” by pot-bellied, cigar-chomping “cooks.”
“But ‘Bubbaville’ has a progressive attitude. It’s growing. It’s open,” Traigle said.
Charlotte was a little larger than Baton Rouge 50 years ago but now has about the same population as all of south Louisiana put together and is home to 11 Fortune 500 companies.
Not all of that is because of fairness on sexual orientation, Traigle says, but it is on a list, along with quality schools and safe neighborhoods, and Charlotte’s leaders made sure it could be checked off by corporate leaders.
“The people of Louisiana are a loving and accepting people,” Traigle said. “They’re way out ahead of their leaders, who are only looking to what it takes to win their next election.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.