It all started with a check from her aunt.
Photographer and Bay St. Louis business owner Ann Madden said she cashed in her birthday present in the name of equality and inclusion last year as the status of House Bill 1523 loomed over Mississippi.
Madden, who co-owns Smith and Lens gallery, had signs that said ALL are welcome printed, and she handed them out to just about every business in Old Town Bay St. Louis.
“It was a gift to myself, and the fact that so many merchants and other residents wanted to display it just reaffirmed that I live in the greatest town in the world,” Madden said.
To this day, businesses big and small still hang the carnival-themed sign in storefront windows. The signs represent a peaceful protest of HB 1523, a bill that gives businesses the right to refuse service to LGBT people due to religious views or preferences.
For a while, nobody had to worry about the bill, because a federal judge blocked it from going into effect after it was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant last summer.
But now, more than a year after HB 1523 garnered national attention from the media and celebrities, those Madden-made signs in Bay St. Louis have become more important.
After lengthy court battles, HB 1523 goes into effect next Tuesday after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals refused a rehearing by the full court on a lawsuit attempting to block the bill over the weekend. LGBT advocates pledged Monday to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a federal judge on the same day opened up conversations with lawyers about a lawsuit that could challenge the bill.
The law was supposed to take effect Friday, but it was delayed four days after opponents asked the federal appeals court Tuesday to continue blocking the law, the Associated Press reports, but the request was denied.
A dark moment in a bright light
HB 1523 becomes law across the state in the same year where LGBT advocacy in South Mississippi has been more visible than ever, community members said.
In May, the first-ever LGBT Pride parade was held in Biloxi, and RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Gia Gunn was a keynote speaker at the event. The Order of Dionysus, an LGBT-friendly Mardi Gras krewe, is gearing up and ready to toss beads for the 2018 Mardi Gras season.
Gulf Coast Equality Council President John Perkins said the festival’s goal is to promote acceptance, inclusion and love on the Coast. The festival will have more than 50 vendors, four musical acts, local cuisine options and activities for children.
Perkins said HB 1523 is regressive and hateful, but it won’t stop the party in about three weeks.
“These kind of laws just need to stop,” he said.
Madden said she was saddened by the news of the law going into effect, but she said there is still plenty of “magic” in the state that often gets overlooked.
“I constantly defend Mississippi as ‘misunderstood’ but it’s getting harder to do that all the time,” Madden said. “I will say that I’ve found some of the greatest people I know right here, and I am so grateful for them and their open minds and their authenticity and willingness to share their beauty, knowledge and abundance.
“Dark moments like this seem to make these bright lights shine even brighter.”
Madden’s “ALL are welcome” sign campaign is joined by the “If you’re buying, we’re selling” campaign. Several businesses across the Coast put the little blue sticker on their doors, welcoming LGBT people into their shops.
Last year, the Sun Herald published a list of those who publicly denounced HB 1523 and could not find one business who supported it.
Will the law affect the Coast?
Bryant told the Associated Press on Monday that the law will “ensure that all of our citizens are free to peacefully live and work without fear of being punished for their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Civil Rights Attorney Rob McDuff, Mississippi Center for Justice and Lambda Legal are taking their appeal of HB 1523 to the Supreme Court.
“Everyone’s known all along that there was at least a possibility that we would lose the appeal,” McDuff said. “We’re going to continue to fight and hopefully the Supreme Court will turn it around and eventually restore the order blocking the law.”
McDuff asked the Fifth Circuit Court to block HB 1523 until the case can be heard by the Supreme Court, but he said it’s likely they will deny his request.
LGBT residents on the Coast say they hope HB 1523 will be blocked or repealed, but they also say the Coast is more inclusive than other areas in Mississippi.
“I think the Coast is much more accepting than the rest of the state,” Perkins said. “I’m not anticipating problems here on the Coast compared to the rest of the state.”
Madden’s shop, along with the businesses in Bay St. Louis, will continue to promote inclusion. If not, she said, she’ll fight back.
“I hope we don’t have any trouble with this law, but I can tell you if we do that this community will rally and back those who are discriminated against,” Madden said. “We won’t stand for it.”
Molly Kester, president of the Mississippi Rainbow Center and vice president of the Gulf Coast Equality Center, said HB 1523 is a waste of time and money.
“It’s a stupid law in the first place,” she said. “It was obviously meant to discriminate against LGBT people in particular, but it can be used to discriminate against anybody.”
Kester, who is also a senior warden at Lighthouse Community Church, said straight or cisgender people on the Coast have really stepped up to help the LGBT community this year, and she sees that continuing in the future despite what the law says.
“They’re all for it and have been backing us, coming to drag brunches ... they are supporting Equality Fest,” Kester said. “It’s been very heartwarming the way the community has really responded to the LGBT community this past year.”