No-Fly Zone

Do Travel Bans Really Advance LGBT Equality?

When states like California ban non-essential state-funded travel to states that have passed anti-LGBT legislation, the impact may be beneficial, but not dramatic.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

North Carolina has already lost an NBA All-Star Game, thousands of potential jobs, and hundreds of millions of dollars over its hateful anti-LGBT law HB2 and the state legislature still hasn’t repealed it.

So can California’s new ban on non-essential state-funded travel to North Carolina—and three other states that have passed anti-LGBT legislation—really make a difference?

Don’t underestimate the influence of the Golden State, advocates say.

“It’s more than symbolic—it’s real,” Rick Zbur, the executive director of Equality California, the statewide LGBT rights organization which sponsored Assemblymember Evan Low’s travel ban AB 1887, told The Daily Beast of the law’s potential influence.

“It absolutely has an economic impact,” Dan Rafter, spokesperson for the LGBT advocacy group Freedom for All Americans, added. “There are hotel rooms no longer being used, restaurants those state employees will no longer eat in, shops they’ll no longer browse, and tourist sites they’ll no longer visit in their downtime.”

The total dollar amount, Rafter concedes, may not be “as dramatic as the price tag associated with losing the NBA All-Star Game,” but it is still “an ongoing cost that can add up along with all of the other economic impacts.”

California’s AB 1887 was passed last September in reaction to HB2, which notably banned transgender people in North Carolina from using public restrooms that match their gender, but it just went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017. And with a handful of exceptions for essential out-of-state travel, AB 1887 prohibits all taxpayer-funded trips from California to Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee—including, as the Sacramento Bee reported, future away games for public university sports teams like the UCLA Bruins.

Travel bans have become a common way for states and municipalities to show support for LGBT people who have been targeted by discriminatory legislation in other parts of the country.

In 2015, for example, several governors banned non-essential state travel to Indiana to protest the state’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” a law signed by Vice President-elect Mike Pence that effectively legalized several forms of anti-LGBT discrimination and led to widespread boycotts.

In response to 2016’s wave of anti-LGBT—and pointedly anti-transgender—legislation, mayors from cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City all issued similar bans on non-essential travel to North Carolina. Governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo quickly added their states to the list.

As Seattle’s KING-TV summarized, four states and seven major cities had already banned state employees from making non-essential trips to North Carolina or Mississippi by April 2016.

Oftentimes, these travel bans are more symbolic than anything else. How often, after all, do Seattle government employees make state-funded trips to North Carolina and how much money do they spend?

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But California’s ban carries a special weight. For one, the state’s GDP is not just the largest in the United States but one of the largest in the world. And as the Bee reported in 2014, U.S. Census data shows that California has the most—and among the highest-paid—government employees in the country.

This means that event planners who want to have relatively wealthy and powerful California government employees in attendance will be that much more likely to look outside of the states named by AB 1887.

“There are many professional conferences attended by government employees and when people are planning an event, they consider a range of factors,” Jennifer C. Pizer, director of law and policy at Lambda Legal told The Daily Beast. “My impression is that this can certainly be one of them.”

Event organizers, Pizer added, already tend to look for cities with non-discrimination ordinances in order to boost attendance but a state-funded travel ban from a large state like California brings the message home.

“It makes it obvious or clear that they won’t have an attendance drag on their event if they pick a location that is seen as appealing to the broadest range of potential participants,” she said.

Determining the exact amount of AB 1887’s impact, however, will be close to impossible—primarily because the law is so comprehensive.

As Zbur explained, it’s “really hard to track because it’s not one budget item in one part of the government.” Indeed, according to the text of the law, it applies to all “state agencies, departments, boards, authorities, and commissions” including those housed in the University of California and California State University.

That latter provision means that AB 1887 will almost certainly affect college sports scheduling down the road. UCLA spokesman Tod Tamberg told the Bee that after the university’s sports teams finish playing games that were scheduled before Jan. 1, “the athletic department will not schedule future games in states that fail to meet the standards established by the new law.”

Neither Tamberg nor the NCAA responded to The Daily Beast’s requests for further comment, but it is clear that AB 1887 could complicate tournament scheduling.

California’s travel ban also highlights less-talked-about anti-LGBT legislation like SB 175 in Kansas (PDF), which allows any religious student association to require members to “comply with the association’s sincere religious standards of conduct,” or Tennessee’s SB 1556 (PDF), which permits therapists and counselors to turn away LGBT patients based on “sincerely held religious belief.” Mississippi is included because of a sweeping “religious freedom” law signed into law last April.

And that list of states is by no means closed. Unlike other state-funded travel bans, California’s AB 1887 is a law—rather than an executive order—and it is open-ended, meaning that any state that adopts discriminatory anti-LGBT legislation in the future will be covered by the ban.

As Zbur told The Daily Beast, the law is intended to be a “prospective disincentive” for any state legislature that is thinking about passing an anti-LGBT measure. With “bathroom bills” already under consideration in states like Texas and Virginia, AB 1887 gives local advocates across the country even more ammunition to warn their governments about the economic consequences of discriminating against LGBT people.

“It’s really meant to give advocates in those states tools to try to advocate against adoption of these anti-LGBT laws,” said Zbur.