Outraging the majority: Missouri state senator Greg Razer on LGBTQ+ rights, cancel culture and non-discrimination laws
A conversation with Missouri state senator Greg Razer on LGBTQ+ rights, cancel culture, and non-discrimination laws across America and in Italy.
Last September, a four-month exhibit named “Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights” opened at the Missouri State Museum on the ground floor of the State Capitol Building in Jefferson City. Three days later it was cancelled. Meanwhile, the MONA, the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act that would protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, has been pre-filed for the next legislative session.
We had a chance to talk about it with Missouri State Senator Greg Razer. A Democrat, he grew up in the rural Pemiscot County, which voted overwhelmingly for Donald J. Trump for president last year. The only openly gay State Senator of Missouri, he tells us what it means to represent the community in a state where the Republican majority is sometimes held hostage by an increasingly far-right portion of its base.
First of all, thank you for agreeing to this interview, Senator Razer. I've actually visited your state as a researcher, before the pandemic. I was a guest of the Truman Presidential Library in Independence.
We're very lucky here in Kansas City to have the Truman Library. As you know, this is a very diverse state. It's an interesting place.
We can consider Missouri, especially Kansas City, one of the epicentres of American queer history. That's why I thought it would be important to hear from you about a topic that after all unites us from both sides of the Atlantic. My first question is about the exhibit “Making history, Kansas City and the rise of gay rights” in the State Museum, at the Capitol building. It was put together last September by the students from the University of Missouri Kansas City, on the story and significance of the homophile movement in the 1960s and the National Planning Conference of Homophile Organization of 1966. Governor Mike Parson removed it after 4 days. Can you tell us more about it?
This exhibit was put together by the History Department at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. It has won national awards here in the United States, it has travelled the region. And it just tells the story of, like you said, the Homophile Movement, which is what the LGBT movement was called in the 1950s and 60s, and how Kansas City played a surprisingly larger role than one might expect. When our history is told, it's usually from a standpoint of what was happening in New York or San Francisco. You know, while not as significant of roles, we did play a role and had a lot to do with the movement.
This exhibit was to be displayed in the Missouri State Capitol and then in our Missouri History Museum. The first floor of our State Capitol is a museum and there are permanent displays along the walls. And then there are rotating displays about very specific pieces of history, art, music, etc. And this was to be up for about four months. And it lasted four days.
The governor's administration got many emails from some of the more far-right legislators that were upset that something talking positively about LGBT Missourians would be displayed in the Capitol. And they very quickly succumbed to that pushback because the governor's administration feared the public backlash that would come from the far right. I think what they didn't expect was that this story would make news throughout not just Missouri. It was in the New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today. And we've made papers in London. So, I don't think they expected to make international news for doing the wrong thing.
Actually, in Italy, we didn't hear about it. And it’s strange because usually in Italy the media pick up many stories from the US, described as proof of the existence of a so-called cancel culture. But now we have a real issue of cancellation by the authorities that wasn't mentioned anywhere here. Do you think that maybe some of the media have been focusing on the wrong cancel culture?
I don't know how else you could describe this. I mean, this is real history that happened in our state that was going to be told in our State Capitol. And it was cancelled, literally stuff taken out of the Capitol and put in an auxiliary building. And I think this is not just an American thing, this is happening across the globe right now. You know, we're in a moment in the United States where there's a large portion of our people who like to think of the United States only in the most positive lights, and there's obviously a lot that we as Americans have to be proud about. And I'm very proud of my country. But that isn't to say that we don't have darker parts of our history. You know, we had slavery in this country for over 400 years, women didn't have the right to vote, the treatment of Native Americans and the treatment of LGBT individuals. And I'm not going to keep listing, because I'm going to leave somebody out and feel terrible. But we have to tell those stories, here in the United States and across the globe, we have to learn from our past so that we don't repeat those mistakes. And not studying this history does nothing to help us move forward.
About this topic. I was looking today at the list of the laws pre-filed for the next legislative session. And there is much focus on what schools can actually teach pupils. And of course, a lot regarding abortion. Do you think there is currently an effort by the GOP, within a new wave of cultural wars, to marginalize some communities in the US in a way resembling what was done with the exhibit?
You know, I think what we are seeing is, especially when it comes to how to teach race in school, we are seeing a political tactic, one that, unfortunately, in our country has been successful throughout our history, which is to outrage the majority. I think probably the clearest example of this was Nixon Southern strategy of sweeping the southern states for the Republican Party and having a path to the White House. I think you're seeing something similar. You're going to hear a lot about critical race theory, not just here in Missouri, but across the country.
Why, are we teaching our second graders critical race theory? Well, we're not. Banning critical race theory in elementary schools is like banning calculus in elementary schools. I mean, we're not teaching calculus to seven-year-old. There's one piece of legislation I saw that had something to the effect of teaching no history that doesn't show the United States in a positive light. Well, that's asinine. That's ridiculous. We have to, we have to look at the dark parts of our history, shine a light on that so that we can be better people. And that's what we have to fight back about. But I think in the short term since this is an election year in the United States, it will galvanize their base to come out and vote.
Do you think that state chambers in the US do more effective work for the country than does the Federal Congress?
A fascinating question. You can say yes and no. So, what we do in the state legislatures affects people's day to day lives, much more than what happens in Congress. And Congress, unfortunately, today is very broken, compromise became a bad word, we've become a polarized society. And I hope this is just a moment in time, and we will get past it. So that leaves a lot of work to the states. And when you take it to 50 separate individual legislatures, you're going to get good and bad. And so, what we do really does affect Americans lives much more than what happens in Congress, with the exception of when we pass, for example, trillions of dollars in infrastructure funding.
We haven't invested in our infrastructure on a large scale in many decades, and we're about to put people back to work and revamp our economy and make it clean, more inclusive for all people. There are moments where Congress can do big things that individual legislature simply cannot. And so it's a difficult question to answer. On a normal day to day basis, yes, our state legislators probably do more. But in those big moments, you know, there's a great line from the TV series the West Wing, where it says there are times that we are 50 individual states, and there are times that we're one nation, and in those times when we're one nation, Congress is powerful.
I have a personal question for you as the first and only openly gay senator of Missouri. Have you encountered the issue of being identified as the “Gay Senator” or something similar to what Pete Buttigieg had to go through?
You know, I don't think I've really ever had a negative situation with being an openly gay member of the State Legislature. What I do feel, as the only openly gay senator in the state, is a responsibility, not only to my district. I represent the core of Kansas City, Missouri in our state legislature, but also every LGBT person in the state. And I grew up in a very rural part of our state, in a farming community, a town of about 400 people. And when I speak about LGBT issues, I'm oftentimes thinking about that young person in a small town, who maybe hears my words, maybe hears the words of someone who came from a town like them, and now has the opportunity to be a senator from, you know, the largest city in our state.
It's an honor and a responsibility that I feel. And you know, we're going to have a lot of bills this year and a lot of discussion about transgender Missourians. Unfortunately, we don't have any transgender representation in our State Capitol. But, you know, the LGBT community, that's not just letters that we say, we are a community, and I'm going to be very proud to stand up for our transgender family.
One of the laws that were pre-filed is the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act, known as Mona. The MONA has been introduced in the General Assembly for more than 20 years, thanks to the work of the recently passed Tom Hannegan, a Republican, but has failed to gain traction. What would it mean to pass this law?
First, I think there's the practical part of it. It is still perfectly legal in the state of Missouri to fire someone from their job, to kick them out of their home, or deny them a meal at a restaurant because they are or you think they might be LGBT. We are competing with other states in the country to bring 21st-century jobs to our state. But also have to attract 21st-century employees, and no one wants to come to a hate state. We have to protect our people, we have to protect our economy. But then there's also the message that it sends, once again, to those young people that are out there. We want you in Missouri, we appreciate you. We love you and we care about you. And the Missouri General Assembly is going to stand up for you. I think all of those combined is a very important reason to get this passed. And I will say I think there is a renewed effort, especially in the House of Representatives with people who knew representative Hannigan who passed away suddenly a month or so ago to try to get this passed in his honour. And so there are more discussions than normal this year, about how can we manoeuvre this piece of legislation through the process to honour representative Hannigan in that way, and I'd love to see that happen. He was a dear friend.
Could the decision by the Supreme Court last summer to expand the areas of application of Title Seven of the Civil Rights Act give it momentum?
I think it may actually hurt because there are some that think that Mona is not needed now that that was passed, but, you know, that only dealt with employment. Our Missouri Human Rights Statute, which MONA would add to, is actually much stricter about what employers have to comply with. And of course, it deals with housing and public accommodation as well. However, I think it gives the opposition a reason to say, “well, this isn't really needed. Let's move on to the next issue”.
Speaking about your Republican colleagues, there are a few there are backing efforts to add gender identity and sexual orientation to the protected classes included in the Missouri Human Rights Act. How has their base reacted in this polarized political climate? Do you find it difficult to establish a dialogue with the majority?
No, not at all. I mean, that's the funny thing, before the passing of representative Hannigan, you had three openly LGBT Republicans in the Missouri House of Representatives from three different parts of the state, we have Republican straight allies introducing Mona, there's no political backlash. In a legislative process, the legislature generally slowly follows the sentiment of the constituents. We had seen that here in Missouri for years, people have been on board with medical marijuana. And it took years before the legislature would get on board.
There are loud voices throughout our state against LGBT issues, and it scares a lot of elected officials. But I think that the vast majority of Missourians just doesn't care about the issue. You know, why would you fire a good employee just because they're lesbian? It doesn't make any sense. I think that's the majority of Missourians’ view. However, I think there is an incredibly loud minority that scares the majority party, that scares the Republican Party into action.
It’s something that relates to what happened here in Italy. We currently have a really fired up debate about a piece of legislation that would protect for the first time the LGBTQ +community from hate crime. It failed to pass in the Senate after years of compromising, partly because part of the coalition backed out at the last-minute adducing issues with gender identity and school teaching. Actually, Lady Gaga was in Italy last month, and she offered a message of encouragement only on Italian TV after the law failed to pass. Since you're experiencing a similar struggle, do you want to send a message to the Italian LGBTQ plus community or even a few suggestions on how to manage with compromising with the so-called moderates?
Yeah, while you bring that up, several things pop into mind. First of all, Missouri was one of the few states to pass a hate crimes bill following the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1999. It's very important, at least with the way our laws are written in Missouri, to keep in mind that a hate crime is something different. And the example that I use with my colleagues when talking about this is if someone just spray-paints on the side of a synagogue, that's one thing, but if they spray-paint a swastika? Well, that's meant to intimidate and scare those citizens that are going to worship in that synagogue. And it's a very different crime than mere vandalism. So, I encourage everyone to keep working on this issue in Italy. And that’s why we need to study our history. LGBTQ equality across Europe and North America has happened rapidly when compared to other minority groups. It is fascinating, but it didn't all happen at once. Just look at our history, what that exhibit in the Missouri Capitol was talking about, which is part of the history of the United States.
We were setting up homophile organizations, we were laying the groundwork until the moment Stonewall happened. Had there not been the groundwork, Stonewall would have been a one-night or a three-night event. It galvanized the community. But there were mechanisms in place to sustain that energy. We see it, you know, through the 80s, with the AIDS epidemic and Act up popping up in New York and across the nation, these things tend to happen slowly, and then the dam breaks. And so, I would encourage everyone, keep plugging away, don't lose hope. Just keep chipping away, history is on our side, we will win these battles, so long as we keep fighting for them. And it will take longer than we want. It'll be more frustrating than we want. And on some things, we might have to compromise. But we have to know what our core beliefs are. And one of them is that we are a full LGBTQ community, and we can't leave anyone behind. But we have to just keep working on this. And you know, we're rooting for you here. I hope you're rooting for us there.