The 'other travel ban': Why California is putting other states on no-go list

A 2017 California law forbids state employees from traveling to states that discriminate against LGBT Americans. So far, eight states have been added to the list. Supporters say economic boycotts work; critics wonder if it's the best way forward.

Jeff Chiu/AP
Xavier Becerra, Attorney General of California, gestures at the Pride parade in San Francisco, Sunday, June 25.

When California announced last week that it was restricting state-funded travel to Texas, Shaun Harper faced a dilemma.

Should his organization hold its annual conference in November in Houston, as it had planned for months? Or should they relocate to a city that is not in a state that recently allowed faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples?

“Some people were immediately like, ‘You’ve got to get out of Texas as soon as possible,’ ” says Mr. Harper, president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). “I respect those perspectives. My personal activist stance is you don't pull away from the site of injustice; you go to it.”

Harper’s predicament highlights the issues swirling around California’s implementation of Assembly Bill 1887. The law, passed in January, prohibits state employees from using tax money to travel to states with laws discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals and families. The first four on the list were Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Last week, state attorney general Xavier Becerra added Alabama, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Texas.

The strategy is essentially a boycott in line with the one that led North Carolina to repeal its maligned “bathroom bill.” Some business coalitions say the tactic works: It sows the kind of uncertainty businesses try to avoid and provides a disincentive to lawmakers looking to pass such laws.

But others, like Harper, say there are ways of fighting discrimination that don’t involve the hostile singling out of states. And some critics are skeptical the ban will lead to policy changes. The move, they say, appears to be at least as much about California and the Democratic Party employing a strategy that aligns with an increasingly left-leaning base as it is about advancing the cause of the LGBT community.

“It’s a symbolic gesture,” says John Pitney, Jr., professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles. “There’s pressure on the party to be even bolder and more progressive. This is one small step that [Mr. Becerra] can take … that the progressive base of the Democratic Party will like very much.”

'A place where ideas are debated'

Harper, who is black and gay and teaches race and ethics at the University of Southern California, supports robust rights for the LGBT community. As an advocate, he says, he understands the strategy of effecting change by hurting a state’s economy and compelling its legislators to behave differently.

But as an educator, Harper says he can’t help but feel that boycotting Texas would mean abandoning students and families who don’t have the luxury to leave their home state. “We owe it to them to go to where they are suffering and to do all that we can with what we know to alleviate [that],” he says.

“[A university is] supposed to be a place where ideas are debated, contested, revised, where we grapple with ideas and understand that we’re not all going to always agree, but that learning happens in the space of disagreement,” Harper adds.

His position echoes that of Charles Moran, board member of the California Young Republican Federation and former chairman of the Log Cabin Republicans, a major conservative LGBT organization.

“Some of these states do have laws on the books that clearly don’t reflect what a modern family is,” says Mr. Moran, who for more than a decade has worked to advance LGBT rights within the Republican Party. “What I’ve learned is, the way to get around this is by telling your stories, doing the face-to-face interactions, changing hearts and minds one at a time.”

California's law, he says, prevents that kind of discourse from taking place. “Instead of other states getting to learn about what it means to be tolerant, all they’re seeing is a bunch of arrogant Californians telling them what their values should be,” Moran says.

The criticism cuts to what some analysts say is one of the Democratic Party’s biggest problems: a tendency toward public gestures meant to appeal to an increasingly vocal liberal base – sometimes at the cost of advancing policy goals.

“This shows again a Democratic Party that’s looking to find its bearings,” says Bill Whalen, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “When do we move away from outrage and get down to the business of ideas?”

Effect of sanctions

Still, some say the ban does have teeth. Since Becerra added Texas to California’s no-go list, Jessica Shortall says she’s received dozens of calls from concerned entrepreneurs and organizations wanting to know if they can – or should – still hold events in Houston or Austin or Dallas.

“One of the worst things you can introduce in a situation, when you’re looking at it from an economic development perspective, is uncertainty,”  says Ms. Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, a group that promotes an LGBT-friendly business environment in the state. “Why would I spend my time considering Texas when we just don’t know what's going to happen there?”

In a survey by Meetings & Conventions, a research and analysis site for event planners, about half of respondents said laws around LGBT rights factored into their decision to choose a site. More than a fifth said they would be willing to incur fees to cancel a meeting in a state that passed a law that some attendees would consider discriminatory, while 34 percent said they would do so “in some instances.”

One report, released in April, estimated that the Texas economy stands to lose at least $1.04 billion if it passes Senate Bill 6, which would require transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate. (The Texas Legislature is set to vote on the bill during a special session that starts July 18.)

“It’s something that’s talked about a lot in the industry,” Shortall says.

Proponents say the numbers prove that boycotting states with discriminatory legislation is a crucial part of fighting discrimination everywhere.

“It is facilitating discourse and conversation,” says Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, which co-sponsored A.B. 1887. “If the LGBT community and allies and elected officials basically turn a blind eye as these states target our communities, then I doubt there will be any discourse that happens.”

“We want to demonstrate that in California, inclusion is not something to be feared,” he adds. “Having policies that embrace diversity and inclusion is good for everyone.”

One group's decision

Harper grappled for nearly a week over whether to relocate the ASHE conference. On Wednesday, he took the matter to his board members, who voted 8 to 1 to keep the event in Houston.

In a statement, Harper explained that they considered the legal and financial consequences of relocating. But more importantly, he wrote, “We agreed that ASHE members who are able to travel to Houston should strategically use our scholarship to bring about the change we wish to see there and elsewhere in our nation.”

“There’s some serious learning that can happen in Houston at our conference, even though we don’t agree with the politics of the place,” he says.

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