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Opinion The progressive case against boycotting states like Indiana

Indiana legislators and business leaders announce changes to the state's new religious-objections law on Thursday. (Michael Conroy / AP)

Ann Friedman is a freelance journalist who lives in Los Angeles.

'Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no," Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said of the nationwide response to his state's "religious freedom" act, which most observers agree would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers. That backlash appears to have worked: After the state of Connecticut, the band Wilco, actor George Takei and several companies, among others, declared that they would boycott Indiana, Pence (R) realized that he had a "perception problem." On Thursday he signed a follow-up measure clarifying that the law can't be used to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

It looks like #BoycottIndiana has served its purpose. But for the past week, social media feeds have been so full of condescending posts — "Indiana is an appalling state," "I'm naming this hangover Indiana" — that it's clear not all of the blowback is about gay rights; it's also about a superiority complex toward flyover country. None of the people I follow on Twitter who actually live in the state were using the boycott hashtag. And tongue-in-cheek tweets like "I am canceling all my non-essential travel to Indiana" seemed to take shots more at the state's residents than at the legislators who passed this law.

As someone who made a nonessential trip to Indiana last year, I was annoyed. I went there in October to visit my friend Katie Blair, who, as the campaign manager for Freedom Indiana, worked tirelessly to try to prevent the passage of the religious freedom bill. I called her this past week to find out whether the backlash had actually helped her cause. "I've been screaming my lungs off for a month and a half trying to fight this thing," she said, "and now all of a sudden everyone's like, 'There's an Indiana problem.' "

The new attention was welcome; Freedom Indiana hopes it will help keep the pressure on Pence. (It's still legal to discriminate against LGBT people throughout the state — Pence's follow-up measure merely means that the religious freedom law cannot be cited as the reason.) But the faraway critics of Indiana's law don't seem to see the big picture. Indiana's LGBT movement hasn't fared much worse than those in other states: "We defeated a constitutional ban [on same-sex marriage] and then got full marriage equality," Blair says. "Don't say that we [in Indiana] hate the gays and that we're stupid hillbillies." Some Indiana residents are the gays. And they're reading the same tweets as the rest of us.

Decrying an entire state simply isn't the best way to support the work of activists such as Blair, not to mention the LGBT people who've chosen to make Indiana their home. The boycott may have been effective in challenging this specific law, but it also hurt some of the people it claimed to be trying to help. "They have their weird misconceptions of what our life is here in Indianapolis," says Mickey Rogers, who has lived in Indiana his entire life. After the #BoycottIndiana hashtag turned its attention to a pizzeria that said it would refuse to cater same-sex weddings, Rogers was even more offended by the response of supposed allies. Columnist Dan Savage retweeted, "If they're serving pizza at the reception then they're not really gay." Rogers and his husband had considered serving pizza at their wedding, so the comment stung. "You're trying to help us? Fat lot of good you're doing us while running us down," Rogers says. "That's really sort of cold."

If novelist Sherman Alexie, or comedians Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, or companies such as Salesforce cancel their trips to Indiana, sure, maybe event venues and promoters will complain to their legislators. But these public figures are also giving up an incredible opportunity. The boycotters have fans in Indiana who also favor LGBT rights, and by not showing up, they miss the chance to unite those fans — people who actually live in the state — as a constituency in favor of nondiscriminatory laws. Groups like Indiana Youth Group, which supports LGBT youth, would love the chance to plug their efforts and collect e-mail addresses at a comedy show or conference.

Perhaps that's why the band Bleachers announced that it would keep its Indianapolis date this weekend. "I don't believe in canceling shows in places where awful laws are being passed," front man Jack Antonoff tweeted. "I believe in going in SPEAKING OUT." Several local record labels released a statement encouraging other artists to follow Antonoff's lead. "Your performance can be a rally," they wrote.

The boycott helped with a tactical victory, but long-term change cannot come just from outside the state. Legislators are more likely to respond to sustained pressure from their constituents and other players in the statehouse — not the social-media outrage machine. So rather than write off Indiana as a place for bigots, we should listen to gay people who live there. "I see your jokes and your snark and your boycotts and the way you dismiss the lives of so many," wrote Roxane Gay, a queer writer who lives in Indiana. "Maybe a boycott will work because the people who support this kind of legislation and have the power to change it are generally ruled by the bottom line. Disdain, however, probably accomplishes far less."

How can outsiders support lasting change? By donating to grass-roots campaigns such as Freedom Indiana and pro-gay-rights candidates for local political office, even when the state is out of the national spotlight. And if we're going to be outraged now, we should also make a point of cheering for victories, such as the marriage-equality decision last year and several municipal-level human rights ordinances that have been passed throughout Indiana. Otherwise, we don't come across as well-meaning outsiders who support love and equality. We just look like condescending jerks.

Twitter: @annfriedman

Read more from Outlook:

Schwarzenegger: Indiana’s religious freedom law is bad for Republicans

Jonathan Turley: Indiana critics try to have their cake and eat it, too

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