On Monday, Starkville residents will march in solidarity of equal rights during Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
One day later, aldermen are expected to rubberstamp decisions that critics say take away equality from members of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community.
After five Starkville aldermen voted in closed-door sessions last week to repeal and amend LGBT-friendly city policies, the social media outcry #WeAreStarkville and subsequent protest publically bloomed.
Mayor Parker Wiseman’s subsequent vetoes of the board’s actions are expected to draw large crowds and further criticisms, both from equality supporters and members of the city’s religious community, as the policies did in last year’s debates.
Besides local calls, the Human Rights Campaign, a national supporter of LGBT rights, issued a notice for pro-equality advocates to attend Tuesday’s 5:30 p.m. meeting at City Hall.
“As a Mississippi State University graduate and lifelong resident of the Magnolia State, I realize this is the moment to show the world the road to advance equality in Mississippi begins in Starkville,” Rob Hill, HRC Mississippi director, said. “The city has already proven once before it is on the right side of history, and what happens Tuesday will determine whether it remains the statewide leader of inclusion, fairness and opportunity.”
Hill said the issue is not political.
“We may have different opinions, but we can all agree and believe in the Golden Rule — treat others as you wished to be treated,” he said.
Numerous residents, from MSU students to Starkville professionals, gathered this week to condemn the board’s actions, which abolished the city’s equality resolution — the first in Mississippi to extend protections specifically to LGBT employees — and amended the town’s plus-one insurance offering to dependent adults, including same-sex partners of city workers, to those only in state-recognized marriages.
At MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library on Thursday, organizers estimated about 200 people took pictures together with signs bearing the #WeAreStarkville social media hashtag.
On Saturday, pro-LGBT activists again spoke out publically against the city’s recent action at the steps of the Oktibbeha County Chancery Courthouse.
“We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to keep fighting and speaking out,” said rally organizer Melissa Grimes. “There are about 900 more days until we can elect new officials. Their time is coming, and we have their number. We’re going to make sure that those who supported us are taken care of. Those aldermen who didn’t, we’ll show up and vote them out of office.”
The path to controversy
After becoming the first city to specifically protect LGBT workers from discrimination and debating its plus-one insurance extension, aldermen gutted their previous resolutions last week. They walked back the equality mandate — few government institutions rarely extend protections to only retract them — and amended the insurance option to only legally married — heterosexual — couples.
The five aldermen who approved these policy changes — Ben Carver, Lisa Wynn, David Little, Roy A. Perkins and Henry Vaughn — did so without any public notice that the votes or discussions would occur.
The entire process was held outside of public view in executive session.
Vice Mayor Perkins, unofficial city minutes show, offered both motions. The minutes also show he ended all closed-door debate on the equality resolution by forcing a roll-call vote.
About five hours after the Jan. 6 meeting began, the smoke cleared once aldermen allowed the public — two members of the press — back into the courtroom. The clerk announced the board’s actions, and the representatives adjourned, offering no comments on the matter.
Twitter boils over with criticism, parody
Almost overnight, Starkville developed an apparent image problem. Social media exploded with backlash against the board’s votes.
“Tues’s BoA meeting: repealing of the equality resolution: violation of open meetings act? Willful statement about willingness to discriminate?” asked one person on Twitter days after the meeting. “Repeal of the quality resolution is immediately aimed at LGBTs. But who’s next? Women?”
Twitter became residents’ go-to social media network for criticism once aldermen took over their posts July 2013.
Since then, users have created parody accounts of a majority of the seven-person board.
A new parody account lampooning Wynn emerged after the Ward 2 alderman flipped her stance on the plus-one insurance option. She was previously applauded for saving a Wiseman veto — she walked out of an override so her vote would not go toward the majority of dissenters — issued after aldermen originally nixed the insurance option in September.
Wynn’s vote to amend the insurance option means the first-term alderman has now voted every way imaginable on the issue: one in favor, one against and one abstaining.
The Dispatch contacted the parody account — @lovetootsiepops, a reference to Wynn’s previous speech about her admiration of the candy despite each bag possessing flavors she doesn’t like — and granted anonymity for an interview since Starkville Police Department previously investigated other similar Twitter handles.
The user confirmed creating the account because of Wynn’s role in canceling the LGBT-friendly policies last week — the alderman, unofficial minutes show, seconded both of Perkins’ motions.
“Being a local politician is hard, I get that,” the user said through direct messages via Twitter. “But when you vote to take away someone’s rights away, you have to expect a negative response, especially when you keep changing your vote. I’m in no way trying to be mean to her. I’m just pointing out that what she does doesn’t always match with what she says.”
In previous investigations, The Dispatch discovered court documents asking Twitter to release information that would allow SPD to track and identify parody account creators.
No Twitter-related arrests have been reported, and an SPD official said Thursday the department has not received an official complaint about the Wynn account.
The parody user said he or she does not fear prosecution.
“I present the account so that any law enforcement officer reading knows that I am aware of my right to free speech. I do not feel I violate any law. It’s just a joke,” the user said.
Only Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker and Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard have yet to be lampooned on social media with parody accounts. They both supported the equality resolution and plus-one insurance expansion in the beginning and voted to keep both policies last week.
Both aldermen confirmed last week that their stances on the issue will not change.
The existence of the Wynn parody account came to The Dispatch’s attention after Wynn tweeted about it, saying SPD contacted her about the satire.
“This is so SAD and UNFORTUNATE,” the Ward 2 alderman tweeted.
Wynn previously told members of the religious community who spoke out against the insurance extension and equality resolution that she could not use the Bible to implement city policies.
Online messages of support manifest offline
Days of online grievances gave way to messages of empathy, sympathy and support for the LGBT community, as pro-LGBT rights advocates created the #WeAreStarkville hashtag as a way to link like-minded locals.
Thursday’s MSU library event was the first physical manifestation of the online movement.
“This isn’t just a Starkville thing, it’s for everyone,” said Michael Waldrop, a #WeAreStarkville organizer who previously spoke out against the board’s 2014 attempt to nix the plus-one coverage. “Family and friends from all over the country are sharing the message that equality is right. We’re people, too, and we deserve equal treatment.
“It’s frustrating when it feels like city leaders have turned their backs on you,” added the MSU student.
“(The equality resolution’s repeal) says you’re not a person and not welcome in this town. A lot of LGBT people want to come here. However, when you see that in the news, they say ‘Hey, maybe I don’t want to come to Starkville.”
Saturday’s event was to feature a number of speakers, including parents of an LGBT child, a Baptist preacher who supports equality and business leaders who say policies that appear discriminatory have an adverse economic impact, Grimes said.
Grimes, who attended MSU, said the city’s recent about-face on LGBT-related issues would have made her think twice about moving to Starkville for higher education.
“We’re at a pivotal time in history,” she said. “Looking at the trends (of support for LGBT issues) nationally, the tides are obviously turning. We’re losing the occasional battle here and there, but we’re winning the war. It’s frustrating…we just want to be treated as equals.
“We’re grateful to the mayor, Alderman Maynard and Alderman Walker who withstood the political pressure. It’s obvious some of these other aldermen didn’t,” she added. “Those of us in the community, we can’t run when things get hard like this. We are who we are, and we can’t change it.”
Protests could be in vain
If the same five-person coalition of aldermen that made its closed-door changes holds, Wiseman’s vetoes will not stand. It takes a supermajority — five votes — to overturn a veto.
Wiseman said he canceled the board’s actions not only because of their impact to city workers’ loved ones, but also because aldermen tended to their actions away from public input.
The mayor said he was unaware of Perkins’ intent to attempt major policy revisions behind closed doors.
“I believe mistreating a person because of his or her…LGBT status is wrong,” the mayor wrote in his veto of the board’s repeal of its own non-discrimination language. “I believe in the dignity and worth of all people, and I believe that in a just society, all people must be equal in the eyes of the law. The equality resolution is about one simple thing, and that is how we treat each other. And I believe that our community is one that fosters love and respect for all, including our LGBT citizens.”
Since repealing the equality resolution, Starkville has operated on non-discrimination language present in the city handbook. That language, however, does not specifically provide protections for LGBT-related issues.
The board unanimously approved the statement, which was authorized for action by Perkins, unanimously on consent in January 2014.
Other cities — Hattiesburg, Oxford, Magnolia, Greenville, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Jackson and Holly Springs — followed Starkville’s lead, issuing similar protections last year.
Insurance option need no extra costs
Aldermen also unanimously approved the city’s plus-one insurance extension on Sept. 2 but blamed Wiseman and Chief Administrative Officer Taylor Adams for hiding the policy’s full impact once members of the city’s religious community began complaining.
Documents within that meeting’s e-packet show a consulting firm clearly identified “domestic partnership eligibility” with the extension.
Previously, the city paid for individual employees’ Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi medical coverage — approximately $393 per month — while workers could extend coverage to their spouse and immediate children through a family option for an additional $600 monthly out of their own pockets.
The extension created additional tiers: the single-employee and whole-family rates remained, while workers could then, at the time, add an adult dependent or just their children for an additional $348 or $268 monthly.
As originally approved, the extension could be applied to others besides employees’ same-sex partners, like unwed heterosexual partners or dependent parents who live with employees.
The policy survived an executive session challenge one week after its passage — Carver attempted to nix the plus-one tier with a public vote, but it died at the table without a second — but the same five-vote coalition pulled the option after an hour of heated public comments on Sept. 16.
Wiseman’s original veto of that board decision stood after Wynn walked out of City Hall so a subsequent abstention would not count toward the majority, reducing the coalition’s vote count to one shy of a supermajority.
“The sole purpose of (the insurance amendment) was to exclude domestic partners from coverage eligibility,” Wiseman wrote in the other veto. “I cannot abide a decision to deny any of our employees the opportunity to see to it that their loved ones can receive medical care when they are sick. It is an opportunity that the city is fully capable of providing, and it costs the city nothing.”
Starkville gained national attention with its LGBT-friendly policies, but Wiseman said perception issues from the closed-door meeting’s results could tarnish the city’s reputation.
“There’s no question in my mind that this sends the worst possible message to the outside world about our community,” Wiseman said last week. “My biggest worry right now is the message it sends in our city and to our workforce. It says members of the LGBT community are not worthy of discrimination protections.
“I believe that’s wrong in every sense of the word,” he added. “I want members of the LGBT community to know that I will not give up the fight to ensure that discrimination will not be tolerated.”
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch