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[Vegas on My Mind]

MGM and Caesars must speak out against Mississippi’s pro-discrimination law

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Southern ban: Mississippi’s passage of a pro-discrimination law poses big ethical issues for MGM and Caesars, which have interests there.
Illustration: Lex Cannon

A few months ago, you’ll recall, Arizona’s economy was threatened with collapse. The legislature had approved SB1062, a measure derided as the “Turn Away the Gay” bill, giving business owners permission not to serve customers if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. It was a back-door attempt to carve out a legal way for that horribly put-upon group—caterers, photographers and bakers—to discriminate against gay people now that the blatant ways are no longer acceptable to most thinking Americans.

SB1062 barreled toward Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk for certain enactment before corporate America stepped in. Sure, gay activists and Democratic leaders were up in arms, but that didn’t matter to GOP majorities in Phoenix. What did, however, was Apple, American Airlines, Marriott, Delta and AT&T making public statements and empowering their lobbyists to make their objections known. It mattered that the Arizona Chamber of Commerce spoke up. It mattered that the NFL might relocate a Super Bowl if the thing became law.

Brewer vetoed it, if only to put an end to the stream of national headlines proclaiming the Grand Canyon State a hostile place for gays, and everybody—including the news media—went on back about their business.

Except the Arizona moment wasn’t a fluke—it was a rainbow-colored macaw in the coal mine. Within weeks, a nearly identical measure flew through the legislature in Mississippi and was happily signed by Gov. Phil Bryant on April 3. In a state where gay people still have virtually no protections anyway, SB2681 makes it super-double-with-a-cherry-on-top okay to tell a gay couple to f*ck off.

What does this have to do with Las Vegas? A lot.

Mississippi is not Arizona. There are precious few massive national companies with significant presences there. Lawmakers in Jackson don’t live in fear of being humiliated as bigots on cable news; theirs is a shameless, almost quaint, homophobia.

Yet Mississippi does have one important industry with ties to the outside world: casinos. More specifically, MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment own six casinos in—yes, this is one of its nicknames—the Hospitality State. With nearly 6,000 rooms between them, they are the hotel business’ major players, feeding millions from the casinos to the state’s coffers. This is a painfully poor state; without the casinos, it’d be unimaginably desperate.

Also, MGM Resorts and Caesars are pioneering companies on the subject of gay rights. They don’t merely conform to current norms, they helped pave the way for them by aggressively marketing to LGBT travelers, offering benefits to their employees and, most importantly, speaking up in Carson City in favor of anti-discrimination and marriage-equality measures. Back in 2000 and 2002, when Silver State voters approved the ban on same-sex marriage, these companies put money and clout behind preventing such a ban.

Where were they, then, when Mississippi was pulling a move that Arizona got scathed for only a month earlier? Silent. And where were they when I reached out repeatedly to find out why they didn’t do anything to oppose the Mississippi law? Silent yet again.

Caesars spokesman Gary Thompson did tell me he was having trouble finding anyone who knew anything about this Mississippi thing. I totally get that, although it would seem like they should have their lobbyists in Jackson on alert for any legislation that could be bad for business or the company’s reputation. Still, it got all the way to Brewer’s desk before the multinational companies noticed in Arizona, too.

So, okay. Perhaps they didn’t know. And Mississippi being such a progressive backwater, the gay activist crowd is poorly funded and loosely organized. They haven’t a clue who to call at the casinos to plead their case, said Mitchell Moore, a straight bakery owner in Jackson who has started a campaign that’s gone viral and national called ifyourebuying.com, where companies can sign up to indicate they stand against anti-gay bias. “I have never seen them in the paper talking about anything,” Moore said. “They are quiet like church mice.”

But now that they know, where are Jim Murren and Gary Loveman? Would they remain silent and risk that 100 percent rating they’ve earned from the national gay lobby Human Rights Campaign? These companies’ logos will surely be omnipresent on May 17 when the Vegas chapter of HRC hosts its annual gala fundraiser. And HRC just announced its latest initiative, setting up offices in Deep South places like Mississippi.

MGM and Caesars are leaders. I do not quibble with that. In fact, I was one of the first journalists to tell the world about it.

But their leadership must extend beyond Nevada. Their Mississippi employees and customers—not to mention their lawmakers—need to know that MGM and Caesars stand for equality and fairness everywhere. It is their obligation there for the same reason it was their obligation in Nevada, because they are the biggest fish with the most economic clout, and that’s the only thing that persuades hatemongers not to legislate their hate.

Moore’s campaign has been active for about one month, during which time nearly 200 businesses—mostly in Mississippi but also in seven other states—have asked to be added to the listing. He’s shipped more than 2,000 stickers destined for merchants’ windows that read, “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.”

The Mellow Mushroom in Brandon, Mississippi, is on the list. Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza and Ice Cream Joint in Jackson is on the list. So is Professional Paws in Pearl, Mississippi. “All I’ve got is an itty-bitty bakery,” Moore said of his place, Campbell’s. The casinos “might even have a bigger obligation because they represent us across the country.”

Not “might.” They do. They have been fêted for their pro-gay stances. They’ve made a lot of money off it, too. And since I know Murren, Loveman and most of their top executives, I feel comfortable saying they also genuinely believe in equality for all.

So maybe MGM and Caesars didn’t know about SB2681. Fine. But they do now. As Sal & Mookie might say, it’s time to do the right thing.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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