Just a few weeks ago, the town of Starkville, Mississippi, was being praised nationally as a surprising example of progress in the South. Starkville is home to Mississippi State University, where the football team's amazing run this season capped off a period of cultural and civic transformation for the town itself. As the New York Times noted in November, Starkville had even passed an anti-discrimination resolution that included sexual orientation and identity.
Starkville was the first place in Mississippi to take that step, in January 2014. Their aldermen led the way for other cities in the state to debate and pass resolutions of their own. In September, Starkville added a policy that extended health benefits to domestic partners of city employees. After that second move, the pressure from local religious leaders to overturn those decisions -- "to move the policies and positions for this city back to a Judeo-Christian position," as one pastor told the board -- began immediately.
On Tuesday, in a closed-door executive session, the Starkville alderman voted to repeal both the new anti-discrimination statement and the policy providing health benefits for same-sex couples. Mayor Parker Wiseman says the aldermen behind the repeal provided no notice that they intended to hold those votes or any explanation for doing so. A local paper, the Columbus Dispatch, can't even be sure which alderman voted which way:
City attorney Chris Latimer advised staff to not disclose how individual aldermen voted Tuesday. It is assumed, however, that the same two aldermen who fought for the plus-one insurance extension -- Ward 4's Jason Walker and Ward 5's Scott Maynard -- again voted to keep the policies on the books Tuesday as they confirmed their stances on the issue have not changed. It is believed Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn joined the coalition of aldermen against the two policies -- Ben Carver, David Little, Roy A. Perkins and Henry Vaughn -- after she first abstained from and then walked out of City Hall during past votes concerning the plus-one insurance tier.
So long as we are debating civil rights in this country, so long as those questions remain unsettled in elections and legislative bodies and in the courts, we are going to see outcomes that vary widely -- in this case, whipsawing within the span of a year in a single town. But it's striking to watch people peering into a black box of a local government, trying to figure out elected officials' positions on an issue of central importance to citizens' lives.
The vote in Starkville was five to two, enough to override a veto from Mayor Wiseman. He told the Columbus Dispatch yesterday that he worries about the signal Starkville is sending:
"There's no question in my mind that this sends the worst possible message to the outside world about our community," Wiseman said of its repeal. "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."