First, composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked) pulled the rights to all of his productions in North Carolina because of an odious antigay law that was rammed through a special session of the state legislature, convened just for that purpose. Numerous state and city governments then banned all non-essential travel to the Tar Heel State.
And then on Friday, Bruce Springsteen announced that he and his band decided they couldn’t in good conscience perform in the state and canceled a concert Sunday night in Greensboro. Other artists and organizations have announced their intentions to boycott North Carolina as well, and my Facebook feed has been rightfully full of kudos for all, as well as for the cities and states that banned travel.
— Nils Lofgren (@nilslofgren) April 8, 2016
Good intentions noted. But I’m going to play devil’s advocate and look at these tactics from a different perspective.
Boycotts don’t just hurt the terrible people who pass really awful, discriminatory, and dangerous laws; they also hurt small businesses that are attached to concerts or theaters and ones that benefit indirectly from them such as restaurants, bed and breakfasts, etc., not a small amount of which are owned by and/or employing LGBTQ folks.
Boycotts also heap a second or third helping of hurt on to LGBTQ folks, families and allies who would have enjoyed those events. As we’ve seen when schools cancel all extracurricular activities rather than, say, let a Gay-Straight Alliance meet, it’s often the queer people who get blamed, not the people making the restrictive rules.
Both the Boss and E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt have been vocal about the cancelation, keeping it in the news with interviews and social media postings. Springsteen even went so far as to give contact information for NC lawmakers for people to reach out to. I’ve loved Springsteen for as long as I can remember, not least of which because he’s such an unapologetic badass about issues I also hold dear, and this makes me love him even more.
— Bruce Springsteen (@springsteen) April 8, 2016
I wonder, however, if it would have been more impactful for him to go ahead with the concert and to donate the night’s proceedings to one of the amazing groups doing work on the ground to overturn the law, to have volunteers from those organizations at exits with educational materials and donation boxes, to talk about it from the stage so that the cheers and applause will show support to those affected.
He could have still released an awesome statement like he did when he canceled, making the same points. He might have demanded folks be able to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity, which could have made a fantastic court case. (NC Gov.) McCrory v. Springsteen has a nice ring to it.
Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz, for his part, might have required that performances include speeches at curtain calls (anyone who has been to a Broadway show while Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS knows how effective fundraising can be when the everyone from producers to the actors are donating their time for the evening and one of them talks about why) and used it as an opportunity to educate and engage in a deeper conversation. Given that three of his most popular shows resonate deeply with queer people because of their outsider themes, the speeches write themselves.
Community‘s Joel McHale stepped up and did something along those lines on Friday night. He went ahead with his scheduled show in Durham, and took the opportunity to rant about HB2 from the stage in a hastily-made pro-gay t-shirt (duct tape is an amazing thing), promising that every penny from that show would go to the local LGBT center. He also used Twitter to excellent effect, tweeting politically captioned shots from the show to great response, bringing even more awareness to the issue.
Look, I totally get that boycotts can be an effective one-two punch of education and financial pain. I deeply respect artists like Schwartz and Springsteen for taking a financial hit to make a point and hopefully create change.
That said, I know what it’s like for the folks on the ground in places like North Carolina, Mississippi (which passed a worse law than North Carolina soon after) and too many other places that are fighting this recent onslaught of anti-gay and anti-trans measures. And I know how every dollar can be stretched to take action on the ground against seemingly insurmountable odds. Artists, governments, and numerous conventions are using their financial power to take a stand for common-sense laws that move us toward equality. Engaging in a deeper conversation can leverage their massive resources into more money, contacts and political power in conservative places.
Those of us with vastly fewer resources can still leverage what we have into more money and resources where they are needed. While it feels good to stomp our feet and toss our curls, social media comments from the comfort of our more progressive urban bubbles like, “Guess I won’t be going to North Carolina soon!” or “Who would want to live in Mississippi?!” are petty, small-minded, and really not helpful. There. I said it. They’re mean to the folks who live there.
People very dear to me live in both of those places ,as well as other “terrible” places like Tennessee, Texas and Utah, and they too are appalled by what’s happening in their legislatures and are doing all they can on the ground to make it different there where they live. They stay in those places because it’s their home, because they’re surrounded by family and friends, because they have a connection to it, because it calls to their souls. Some may even want to leave, but they might not have the money to do so.
They need our help and support, not our condescension and abandonment, especially as they fight gerrymandering and voter ID laws that disenfranchise voters. Rather than turn our backs on them, we should reach out even further to ask them what they need from us to make things better.
If you were, in fact, planning a trip to NC and you are actively boycotting the state, how about taking some of that money and throwing some coin at one of the hardworking groups who are doggedly standing up for equality in those places? You can even write a note to the Governor telling him that while you won’t visit his state because of their stupid actions, you are still going to donate in his honor to organizations that are actively working against him (cc the state tourism board for extra fun).
Travel plans aside, be a good egg and donate to one, several or all of the below groups who are working under very difficult circumstances against these insidious religious exemption laws. Having run a statewide LGBT organization, and knowing many people who still do, I can report that your money goes a long, long way on the ground. They’re incredibly smart people who know what they’re doing. Resource them.
It’s a balancing act. Boycotts can be great and useful things, but so can education and engagement. Both are useful, and, at face value, one isn’t better than the other. That said, the net outcome of leveraging your money to do some good could be much greater than that of a boycott. And with the limited resources our organizations have, we should think more about how we can lift them up and encourage more people to be involved.
Michael Mitchell was the executive director of Equality Utah, the National Stonewall Democrats, and the Gay/Lesbian American Music Awards. He is now a coach and non-profit consultant, and is in the DC area, but not of it.