California is on the cusp of repealing travel ban to anti-LGBTQ+ states

Seven years ago, California lawmakers took a stand against discrimination by passing a law forbidding the state from spending money on travel to states with anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

On Tuesday, they took a stand against discrimination by repealing it.

The unusual about-face by Democrats who control the state Capitol signified a recognition that the boycott enacted in 2016 has not worked. In passing Senate Bill 447, lawmakers agreed to repeal California’s ban on government-sponsored travel to states with laws that discriminate on the basis of sexuality or gender, and replace it with a state-funded publicity campaign in those states promoting LGBTQ+ equality.

“If something is not working, I think it’s imperative on us to be able to switch gears and maybe try a new California initiative that’s going to be able to have a better and more positive impact,” Assemblymember Chris Ward (D-San Diego) said as the bill passed the Assembly without debate Monday along a party-line vote, shortly after being approved by the Senate.

Lawmakers set aside $5 million in the state budget to launch the media campaign required by the legislation. The messages may not “promote political purposes or feature a public official or candidate for elected office,” according to an official legislative analysis of the bill. The campaign — dubbed the “Bridge project” — is supposed to highlight civil rights, LGBTQ+ issues and acceptance of all people.

“The intent of the Bridge project is to target audiences in states that have established discriminatory laws with compelling messaging regarding anti-discrimination, to open hearts and minds and to help our LGBTQ folks in other states feel less isolated and alone,” said Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Los Angeles).

Before he was elected to the Assembly, Zbur led the Equality California gay rights organization, which was a major backer of the original travel ban. He said California’s ban had a “meaningful impact” in its early years when only a handful of states were on the prohibited list.

But since then, the number of states California would not fund travel to grew immensely — it now stands at 26 — as Republican-controlled states have embraced a slew of laws that Democrats consider discriminatory. Among them are laws governing which bathrooms and school sports teams are available to transgender people, and laws prohibiting gender-transitioning medical treatments for youth.

“With nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills having been introduced in legislatures nationwide this year alone, now more than ever I think we need to reach into those communities with messages of support, inclusivity and understanding,” said Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who wrote the legislation.

When she introduced the bill earlier this year, Atkins, who is lesbian, said the idea for the outreach campaign came from reflecting on her childhood in rural Virginia in the 1960s. Many of the conservative Christians in her family changed their views on LGBTQ+ rights after she came out to them, Atkins said.

Though the travel ban does not apply to personal trips, it became a headache for Democrats last year when Gov. Gavin Newsom traveled to Montana, one of the prohibited states, on a family vacation. He paid for the trip with personal funds but critics pointed out that his California Highway Patrol security detail is paid for by the government. The officers’ travel was permitted under the law because the ban has many exemptions, including for public safety. While the trip didn’t violate the law, it highlighted inconsistencies in how it affects Californians.

The law also hasn’t stopped politicians from traveling to banned states by using their campaign funds instead of tax dollars. Lawmakers used campaign money to travel to conferences in states subject to the boycott, including Texas, Alabama and Tennessee, and for a policy visit to Kentucky. This year, Newsom has used campaign funds to swing through several red states as part of his political campaign to help Democrats in heavily Republican areas.

But the ban did complicate things for state employees, who have been prevented from traveling to many out-of-state meetings, as well as for athletes and academics at California’s public universities.

While some sports teams turned to private boosters and corporate sponsors to get the money needed to compete in banned states, many scholars found themselves unable to conduct research in a huge swath of the country.

“This law has specifically harmed Black academics in California, where many of us work at state-funded colleges and universities,” San Jose State University professors Keenan Norris and A. Lamont Williams wrote in a Times op-ed.

“Many Black scholars in California have experienced limitations related to collaborating with fellow scholars and colleagues studying the South, where much of their research is rooted.”

Scholars with the American Historical Assn. also complained about the limits California’s law created for their ability to conduct research, writing in a 2021 letter to the Legislature that the “boycott restricts the work of graduate students and early career scholars, preventing them from completing research that would actually showcase the significance of LGBTQ life, among other pressing subjects, in targeted states.”

The bill repealing the travel ban includes an urgency clause, which means it will take effect as soon as it is signed by the governor. Newsom has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto all bills for 2023.

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