This past April, Georgia passed legislation that allows the barring of transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports. This was a devastating blow for transgender people across the country, as yet another state made it clear that they would be considered different.
In response, California banned all state-funded travel to Georgia. With the addition of Georgia, 23 states are now subject to AB 1887, the 2016 California statute that prohibits state-sponsored travel to states with laws that discriminate against L.G.B.T.Q. people. In addition to preventing any public employee from being required to travel there, the law prohibits approving any “request for state-funded or state-sponsored travel.” This includes, with some exceptions, anyone who works for or receives funding from a public university.
It’s easy to see why California leaders might think a law like AB 1887 is needed. They don’t want residents to be forced to travel for work to states that discriminate against them. They also feel that it’s California’s policy to “promote fairness and equality and to combat discrimination,” and they don’t want to reward states with discriminatory laws through economic activity.
While California bans travel to the most states for this purpose, it’s not the only state to do so. Washington, New York, Vermont, Minnesota and Connecticut have all issued measures restricting employees from official travel to certain states, including North Carolina, in response to laws considered anti-L.G.B.T.Q. — although several of these bans have since been rescinded.
When it comes to research and education, though, such laws can do more harm than good.
At a recent meeting in San Francisco, I met Terrell Winder, a University of California Santa Barbara assistant professor of sociology. One of his ethnography projects focuses on spirituality in Black communities. He planned to attend a conference New Orleans that focuses on nontraditional forms of worship. But since Louisiana is on the banned travel list for California, he was told that he couldn’t use his public university funds to go.
He is also working on a project using qualitative research to better understand how Black, queer men navigate what it means to be gay in a Black-majority city. Before Louisiana fell under the ban, he had conducted 20 interviews with such men in Louisiana and looked forward to returning to the South to interview new participants and follow up with former ones. AB 1887 changed all that.
“My work depends on building relationships and trust with participants, many of whom understandably can be suspicious of research agendas,” Dr. Winder said. “When you have an ongoing project like this, and you make commitments to visit that have to be broken, it hurts the relationship.”
Preventing the use of university funds by faculty to do research in those states is bound to backfire. If states like California don’t allow researchers like Dr. Winder to easily travel to states that discriminate against L.B.G.T.Q. people, research into the ramifications of such policies, by many who might want to conduct it, will be prevented. More than half of African Americans live in the South. It’s likely that a large proportion of Black L.B.G.T.Q. people live there, too.
In addition to cutting off many people whom AB 1887 is intended to help, it’s also putting the careers of faculty members, especially junior ones, at risk by making it much harder to do their jobs and network.
Defenders of the law argue that educators and researchers can use other, nonstate funds to pay for travel. As a more established professor, I, for instance, have external grants and access to other sources of funding that I can dip into. But junior faculty members are much more dependent on university funds to kick-start their careers.
To achieve promotion with tenure, an assistant professor usually needs to show significant success in education, service and research. One of the ways a professor does that is by presenting at national conferences and establishing a reputation as an expert in his or her field. If such conferences are held in states that are on the no-travel list, however, some are stuck.
Jon Goodwin, an assistant professor of counseling, clinical and school psychology who also works at U.C. Santa Barbara, is interested in how to support unusually gifted students. He recently had a proposal accepted at the National Association for Gifted Children Annual Convention, the must-attend event in his field. He looked forward to presenting his work and networking with other like-minded individuals.
Unfortunately, the conference was held in Indianapolis this year. Because Indiana is on the banned list for passing a law similar to Georgia’s (overriding Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto), he could not travel there using work funds. He wound up paying about $1,700 out of pocket to participate in the meeting. Colleagues from other states could use their work funds for travel.
“These types of travel restrictions disproportionally affect those who work in the social and behavioral sciences,” Dr. Goodwin told me. “They prevent us from interacting with communities that are adversely impacted by discriminatory laws. We can’t disseminate our work to them or learn anything new about them.”
Next year’s conference is in Florida, another state on the banned travel list.
“I don’t think the law is doing anything productive,” Brandon Robinson, the chair of gender and sexuality studies at University of California, Riverside, told me. Much of Dr. Robinson’s research takes place in Texas, following L.G.B.T.Q. youth to study how family dynamics, and acceptance of their gender and sexuality, play into issues like housing stability and safety. In addition to having a more difficult time doing this work in person, Dr. Robinson also can’t attend many conferences, like that of the Southern Sociological Society, and can’t travel using university funding to present research locally in Texas, where it might do the most good.
“I don’t know how banning us from traveling is going to affect how local legislators vote in Texas,” Dr. Robinson said. “There’s no evidence the law is doing anything that people could claim is ‘working.’”
Recently there’s been much justified concern over states that seem to be impinging on academic freedom. Florida’s “don’t say gay” law is an example of how legislation can restrict what educators can do and also discriminate against L.G.B.T.Q. people. Other states have seen lawmakers and school boards become increasingly involved in efforts to ban books, restrict educational activities and more.
Laws like AB 1887 are also a restriction on academic freedom, though. They dictate where faculty members can go to learn, teach and research. Such laws should draw the ire of those who profess to hold academic freedom dear. They also don’t seem to have meaningful impact, as Dr. Robinson noted. In July, The Los Angeles Times’s editorial board called for the repeal of California’s law, writing that the ban is “clearly not discouraging red states from passing discriminatory laws, since the list of prohibited states has grown from four when the boycott began to 22 today.”
The approach by California and other states seems like using a sledgehammer when a scalpel might be more appropriate. And the instinct goes beyond academia. As someone who lives in the Midwest, I’m amazed at how often people in blue states seem willing to cut off red states when they disagree with them. This is despite the fact that many people who live in red states like mine don’t agree with discriminatory policies or are affected by them and are working to change them. Severing relationships over politics only isolates people further.
Abortion rights are changing across the country, for example. Do people in blue states believe it’s not worth funding study into how that might affect people? Many policies — including those that focus on food security, health insurance, taxation and road safety — are regulated at the state level. Why doesn’t California see value in funding research into what other states might be doing in those areas? Does California really believe its housing policies, and those who make them, might not benefit from some travel to other states to see what they might be doing better?
When we look across the country, an awful lot of research spending is by blue states. Many advocacy organizations are situated in blue states as well. If the goal is to improve life for Americans, especially those at risk of discriminatory laws, you will fail if your answer is to build a wall around those who might benefit from your help and resources.
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