While President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries has received widespread media attention over the last year, state-level travel bans of another nature have steadily been gaining traction across the country.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2017, California prohibited state employees and officials from traveling on official business to states that the California legislature judges to be discriminatory toward the LGBTQ community. Currently, the list prohibits travel to eight states: Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas.
[Above: Arguments at the United States Supreme Court for same-sex marriage on April 28, 2015 (photo by Ted Eytan)]
Examples of laws that California deems discriminatory include regulations allowing adoption or foster agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples or those allowing school clubs to reject members based on their gender identity. The travel bans do not place any restrictions on personal travel and include several exemptions — for existing contractual agreements and mandatory job training, for example.
Since August 2017, five other states including Washington, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Connecticut have instituted similar travel restrictions for government employees. All of these, in addition to California, banned travel to the state of North Carolina because of its controversial, anti-transgender “bathroom law,” which requires that individuals use only the restroom that corresponds to the biological sex listed on their birth certificate.
In addition, Washington, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and California all maintain bans against traveling to Mississippi due to the state’s law protecting religious organizations from government interference should they choose to deny services to members of the LGBTQ community based on their beliefs.
These actions by states have sparked considerable controversy due in part to their significant economic consequences. Conference and convention planners living in areas affected by travel bans say that the laws come with a stigma and often deter others from visiting those states as well. For example, in response to California’s ban on travel to Kentucky — due to a measure allowing students in public schools to express religious or political views that may be critical of the LGBTQ community — two Chicago-based groups canceled events in Louisville, costing the city $2 million.
In Nashville — a left-leaning city in a conservative state — the American Counseling Association (ACA) canceled a meeting of more than 3,000 individuals, causing Tennessee to lose out on $4 million in revenue. The ACA’s decision was based on a state law allowing mental health counselors and therapists to refuse to treat LGBTQ patients.
However, some affected by the bans have found ways around them, using private funds to support their travel. Stephanie Beechem, media relations representative for the University of California (UC) system, says that while the university “complies with state law … and will continue to do so, there have been instances where UC sports teams or researchers attending conferences have used non-state funds to travel to states on the list.” For example, in January, rocketry clubs at several UC institutions were invited to compete in NASA’s highly competitive Student Launch project in Huntsville, Ala., and three universities used private funds to allow students to attend.
Critics of such bans question whether California and other states are inflicting their beliefs on more conservative states, exacerbating political divisions rather than protecting LGBTQ individuals. Tennessee Sen. Mike Bell, a Republican, told The Associated Press that “California has potentially opened what could become an economic civil war between the states.” However, Democrat Evan Low, leader of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus who initially created the ban, argues that the travel restrictions boil down to a moral issue, serving as a “strong statement that supports fundamental basic humanity.”