Indiana Needs Investment, Not Abandonment From Tech Leaders

by Melissa McEwan on March 28th, 2015

Last Thursday, Republican Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law a “religious freedom” bill, which has been defended by its supporters as a necessary protection for people with strong religious beliefs, but is, in practice, a license for people to legally discriminate against anyone they don’t like.

Despite supporters’ contention that the bill is meant to address (an imagined) hostility toward people of faith, in reality, its entire point is simply to provide a victory lap to homophobic conservatives who still want the legal right to discriminate against same-sex couples after same-sex marriage was forcibly legalized in Indiana last year.

The law is so broad that the implications are enormous. An emergency room doctor, even if zie’s the only one on duty, could refuse to perform a lifesaving abortion. A pharmacist could refuse to dispense birth control. A utility company, even if it has a monopoly in the area, could deny service to same-sex couples, or atheists, or Wiccans. All they have to do is claim that to provide service to queer people, or nonbelievers, or “witches,” is a religious burden.

Under this law, any legal entity – “an individual, an association, a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a church, a religious institution, an estate, a trust, a foundation” – is allowed to withhold any service on the basis that providing such service is contrary to their religious belief. Further, “I don’t like those people because my god said so” is deemed sufficient legal justification of those beliefs… “regardless of whether the religious belief is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.”

It is a profoundly heinous piece of legislation, and both progressive and many conservative Hoosiers object to its passage. Those of us who live and do activism in red states knew what was coming: The predictable progressive backlash began with an outpouring of blanket generalizations about how people in Indiana are a waste of space (without a trace of irony that such broad statements include queer Hoosiers), admonishments to progressives in red states that we should just move (as if that is an option for everyone), and a #BoycottIndiana hashtag was started on Twitter.

Many of the people calling for the boycott are, realistically, individuals who have never set foot in Indiana, never will, and probably couldn’t pick out Indiana on a map. But there were also corporate leaders who immediately embraced the notion of a boycott. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff announced his company would be “cancelling all required travel to the state of Indiana,” and called on “other tech CEOs and tech industry leaders to please take a stand.

Part of his concern is keeping his employees safe in a hostile state, with which I’m deeply sympathetic. After all, the reason I oppose this legislation is because I want queer Hoosiers to be safe. But another part of it, central to the idea of the boycott and reiterated thousands of times on social media, is that withholding investment in Indiana will put pressure on our state government and force their hand—and/or that hitting Hoosier voters in their wallets will force them to vote differently.

Well. Here are a few things you need to understand about Indiana:

  • We are an incredibly gerrymandered state, where in many districts, candidates run unopposed. Even if you want to vote for someone in a different party, you don’t even have the opportunity to do so.
  • ALEC is very active in Indiana and has essentially turned Indiana into a conservative legislation lab. There is an enormous amount of external money that gets funneled into the state. A boycott of the state wouldn’t touch that.
  • Our state leadership often acts in contravention of the majority’s will. A majority of Hoosiers opposed the same-sex marriage ban, but the state legislature passed it anyway. Even when progressives and conservatives come together to reject some proposed piece of legislation, we are ignored—and the reason our legislature feels free to do so is because of gerrymandering and external funding.
  • Hoosiers are already hurting economically. Earlier this week, a court in Indiana ruled that public schools were allowed to discontinue bus service for schoolchildren, in order to save money. We are a state in which one out of six people depends on food stamps/pantries in order to get enough to eat. Northwest Indiana, the part of the state in which I live, has never recovered from the decimation of the steel industry under Reaganomics. Jobs are scarce. And so are resources to fight to change any of this.

The little blue corner of the state where I live is progressive, but it is also poor as hell. And our state capitol treats us like an ATM, draining what little resources we’ve got. Our roads have been privatized. We pay higher tolls to a private corporation so the state can rake in money on a private lease, and we see none of it. Our roads are littered with potholes. Our utility infrastructure is shit. There are few jobs offering a livable wage, and no public transport to get to them. Our unions are being busted. Our public education system is being destroyed. We are progressives, but our state government steals from us.

The idea that we need more pressure in order to be moved to do something is absurd. People on the precipice don’t have the luxury of principled resistance. We are too busy trying to survive.

What you need to understand about Indiana is that the state government doesn’t give a fuck about the people of the state. If you don’t, either, you’re on their side. Not ours.

The truth is, progressives with resources have been boycotting Indiana for decades. That’s actually why we’re in this situation. If you want to know what a boycott would really look like, what result institutional neglect will really have, this is it. This legislation—it’s the result of Indiana having been de facto boycotted for years, written off as a place unworthy of investment by people who could help.

People with money and jobs and conferences to hold. People who know that progressive Hoosiers’ primary problem is social isolation and a lack of political infrastructure, and that a boycott will only exacerbate both.

What a generalized boycott of Indiana would do is harm working people—among whom are queer business owners, as well as queer employees of inclusive and supportive employers, and also queer employees of discriminatory employers, because that’s the only job they can get in a state with far too few jobs.

And let’s be honest here: It isn’t like the vast majority of people who are cheering “Boycott Indiana!” had any plans to visit Indiana and spend money in this state, anyway. It’s just a slogan to shout at a state they perceive to be full of fat, poor, lazy, conservative, straight, cis, white people.

Which underlines what’s really the worst thing about this idea: It’s reflective of a vicious stereotype that disappears the existence of the very people for whom the sloganeers purport to care.

If Benioff and the other tech/corporate leaders who are advocating a statewide boycott really want to do something meaningful for vulnerable Hoosiers, what they can do is set up shop. Flood the state with money and jobs and resources. Make themselves a permanent presence in the state, to whom our legislators might actually listen. Create the need for better infrastructure, and offer paychecks that allow people to fill their bellies and jobs that come with employment protections and a work-life balance that allows them to go protest at the statehouse.

This is what we need. We need help, not abandonment.