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California Democrats want to reverse a travel ban to anti-LGBTQ states. Has it had its intended effect?

The California state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., pictured on April 13, 2023.
Nicole Nixon
The California state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., pictured on April 13, 2023.

A top California Democrat wants to do away with a ban on state-funded travel to states with discriminatory laws, a list that has ballooned as anti-LGBTQ laws sweep the country.

The ban was passed into law in 2016 following a North Carolina law targeting transgender people, which required them to use public restrooms that correspond with their sex assigned at birth. It applies to state-funded travel for conferences, research trips and athletic competitions for teams at public universities.

California’s travel ban initially applied to four states – including North Carolina – but in the seven years since has grown to more than half the states in the nation and led lawmakers to question its efficacy.

“I think we find that it isolates us from being able to be present, be visible and show examples of inclusivity and success,” said Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, who is authoring a bill to repeal the travel ban.

Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, is the first lesbian to lead the California Assembly and Senate and grew up in religious rural Virginia. Her Senate Bill 447 would create a donation-driven outreach campaign to “encourage acceptance and understanding” toward LGBTQ communities in more conservative states.

“It really is personal relationships, direct communication and contact that change hearts and minds. I know that; it changed my parents,”Atkins told CapRadio’s Insight with Vicki Gonzales in June. “It is about building bridges. But we can only do that if we’re able to be there.”

Has the ban been effective?

Little research has been done into the effects of state-funded travel bans and tourism officials say it’s hard to measure their exact impacts.

The ban has made it more difficult for academics to go to prohibited states to study or present their findings.

Soon after the law took effect in 2017, San Francisco State University history professor Marc Stein traveled to North Carolina to research a transgender woman and sex worker who was sentenced to prison in 1962.

“I needed to go to North Carolina to do that research,” Stein said in an interview. “I planned to do it before the ban was in effect. When I applied for reimbursement on my return, the foundation that holds my research funds put a stop on payment based on the policy.”

Stein was able to successfully appeal because he had booked the trip before the law took effect. He also found a workaround for more recent travel since his research fund is held by a university-affiliated corporation, not the university itself.

“But colleagues working on other issues don’t have access to those kinds of funds,” he said.

Stein believes the travel ban ends up limiting the topics graduate students pick to study. He noted there would be fewer obstacles for a research trip on a California-based topic than for something like the Tulsa race riots or Florida’s anti-gay Johns Committees from the 1950s.

“We’ve seen the absence of dozens or hundreds of individual stories … because I think people then just choose different [research] topics,” he said.

Despite that, Stein is not getting behind Sen. Atkins’ proposal to repeal the ban and instead called for a social justice research or higher education carveouts.

“I think it sends an unfortunate message that the arguments that are coming at us from Florida and Texas are working and that we need to change our value-based policies because of economic costs,” he said.

Stein acknowledged California’s travel ban has not deterred other states from passing laws targeting members of the LGBTQ community, but said that’s not the only way to measure success.

He believes boycotts can be effective tools to influence state policy and cautioned against ending the law.

“These things take a long time,” he said, noting professional conferences are often planned years in advance. “So I don't think we've given the policy enough time to work at that level.”

The impact in the state that inspired California’s travel ban

California passed the travel ban to put economic pressure on states that pass discriminatory laws. The ever-expanding list shows it’s not enough of a deterrent.

But it has been effective in another way.

“It’s definitely had an impact on the state – a negative impact,” said Wit Tuttell, executive director of Visit North Carolina, the state’s tourism bureau.

Tuttell said some college athletic teams from California would book hotels in Virginia for competitions taking place in North Carolina to get around the travel ban.

An Associated Press analysis estimated the economic cost of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, the law targeting transgender people that inspired California’s travel ban in the first place, to be $3.76 billion. But that estimate included film, concert and corporate boycotts.

Tuttell said his state has lost opportunities to bid on conferences or other events, but that it’s “impossible” to measure the exact economic impact of the ban.

“It's one thing if an organization is looking to host a convention here and they tell us, ‘hey, we're not hosting it here because of this travel ban.’ But what you don’t know is how many meetings didn’t even consider you because of it,” Tuttell said.

The tourism official also pointed out House Bill 2 was repealed in 2020 and that North Carolina’s Democratic governorrecently vetoed three bills targeting transgender individuals.

Despite that political shift, North Carolina remains on California’s list of prohibited places for state-funded travel.

Nicole covers politics and government for CapRadio. Before moving to California, she won several awards, including a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, for her political reporting in her hometown of Salt Lake City. Besides public radio, Nicole is passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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