Voting With Our Feet

This past week, following a ceremony in a church gymnasium where he signed a law limiting abortion rights and certified the action taken by the state Legislature to put a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage before Texas voters in November, Republican Gov. Rick Perry gave lesbian and gay veterans the back of his hand.

Asked how he would explain the amendment to gay and lesbian soldiers returning from Iraq, Perry responded, “Texans made a decision about marriage and if there’s a state that has more lenient views than Texas, then maybe that’s a better place for them to live.”

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) came out with a statement in the wake of Perry’s comments estimating that 66,000 gay and lesbian veterans live in Texas. The methodology behind that estimate may well be open to question, but it seems unlikely that too many gay Texas—veterans or otherwise—will take the governor up on his challenge to leave the state merely because they were offended by his vitriol.

Col. Paul W. Dodd, a retired Army chaplain in Texas who is an honorary SLDN board member, showed no signs of backing down in his response to Perry: “Gov. Perry’s remarks were outrageous and offensive and do not reflect the views of fair-minded Texans who value the service of our men and women in uniform.”

Surely, most gay Texans—like the rest of us who grew up in a nation still scarred by the stain of homophobia—have developed thick enough skins so that umbrage at daily indignities would not cause them to rashly abandon the place they call home.

To be sure, for decades, the media and society generally have noted the migration patterns of gay and lesbian Americans, particularly younger ones still making fundamental life choices, toward major urban centers—San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta and Seattle, to name just a few—on the theory, first voiced in the Middle Ages, that “city air breathes free.” But as journalists and sociologists have dug deeper in recent years, we have learned a lot more about gay and lesbian people who stay on in their communities of origin—and not simply to suffer in silence as many in the big city gay ghettoes often assume, but rather to fight, even if with quiet voices and incremental gains in mind, for the dignity and respect their neighbors expect as a matter of course.

Gay men, lesbians and queer youth are becoming increasingly visible in small-town America and that assertiveness can be gauged in the spread of local anti-discrimination ordinances and in gay-straight alliances springing up in high schools. I got a crash course in Red State commitment to gay rights several years ago when I attended the annual November gathering of the Creating Change Conference convened by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, where I met savvy and determined young activists from rural communities in Kentucky, Missouri and Montana, among many places.

But as the African-American migration north after World War I and the more recent flight to the Sunbelt by underemployed northerners demonstrated, Americans do respond to social and economic disparities among regions in the nation. When Michigan recently passed a broadly-worded constitutional amendment barring gay marriage, many, including Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a progressive, interpreted it to mean that public employers can no longer offer domestic partner benefits to their lesbian and gay employees. News reports identified a lesbian couple from the Northeast, in which one member recently accepted a job at one of Michigan’s public universities based in part of her ability to give her partner, who was giving up her own job to move, health insurance. The couple now worry they made the wrong relocation decision.

America may be entering an era when the basic legal, social and economic protections available to gay and lesbian people begin to diverge radically state-to-state. It is too early to say what impact that will have on the demographic shape of gay America. But, as we face an environment in which, in choosing where to live, we need to think not only about how friendly our neighbors are and how safe our community is, but also what are our prospects for gainful employment and for health insurance to protect us in crisis, we may see new waves of gay and lesbian Americans voting with their feet.

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