Issues surrounding Louisville as an ESA Annual Meeting Site

Note: some factual corrections and word changes are occurring due to helpful comments and critique from the ESA Community.


As Program Chair of the 2019 Ecological Society of America conference, I am alarmed and distraught that the location, Louisville, Ky, has created much negative attention and, indeed, fear among some in the LGBTQ+ community who are interested in attending.

I am aware that the meetings committee more generally is also extremely concerned as is Society leadership.

I am writing now because I want to provide as much information as I can quickly, while continuing to work on the situation.  Views expressed here are my own.

Overview of how sites are selected

The 2019 Ecological Society of America Annual meeting is scheduled to be held in Louisville, Kentucky.   Planning for this meeting has been ongoing for many years and contracts for the meeting have long since been signed.  The Society works many years ahead on selecting the annual meeting location.  Meetings leadership visits with representatives from the city, does site tours and assesses the locations for “fit” with the membership.  At the time it was selected, Louisville fit well with the conditions that the Society was looking for, and also allowed us to venture into a new area of the country.

Kentucky law SB 17 

In 2017 a new law was passed in Kentucky that has serious ramifications for the meeting location.  The law is SB 17 and the full text is here [LINK].  This is effectively a “religious freedom” law; here is a story about the passage of the law [LINK].  Unfortunately, many states across the country have such laws as illustrated by this map from the Indianapolis Star from 2015 [LINK].

From my perspective, the existence of this law and its potential for creating an environment of discrimination toward members of the LGBTQ+ community are extremely troubling.  For this reason, I sought out more information about the law.

To find out more about conditions on the ground in Louisville and how SB 17 might influence ESA members at the annual meeting,  I reached out to the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign in Kentucky [LINK].

According to the director of the Fairness Campaign, the origin of SB 17 was related to Linus’ soliloquy in a public school rendition of Charlie Brown Christmas.  The law is aimed at school groups.  The Fairness Campaign and other groups in Kentucky opposed this law on the grounds that future discrimination may take place as a result of this legislation.  There is careful monitoring by a number of local organizations, but to date, no charges of discrimination have been levied associated with this law.   Importantly, this law was not directed at LGBT issues according to both the director of the Fairness Campaign and public comments from the sponsor of the legislation.

If you are concerned with LGBTQ+ issues in Kentucky and wish to connect with (or contribute to) organizations working on the ground you might consider Fairness Campaign (LINK).

Louisville as a welcoming place for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

I queried the Fairness Campaign director about Louisville as a destination for members of the LGBTQ+ community who may attend our annual meeting.  He shared with me that, in fact, no city in the country has a better rating for LGBTQ+ equity.  I checked and Louisville (perfect score- 100) has a better rating for LGBTQ+ equity than either of the previous two ESA sites (Portland- 88, New Orleans- 89).  I did some research on my own and found support for this ranking including the city’s large gay population and reputation for attracting gay tourists. The Fairness Campaign director told me directly that he felt our Society would find Louisville “incredibly welcoming.”

The travel situation with California.

The State of California has banned travel while on state time or using funds to a set of states, including Kentucky, based on the existence of religious freedom laws.  Here [LINK ] and here [LINK] are stories on this.  We will continue to seek a solution.

Could the meeting be moved?

I have heard many calls for the meeting to be moved.  Here are some of the issues.

Planning meetings as large as our annual meeting takes years, and the contracts are signed well in advance.  These contracts include agreements with the convention center, service providers, hotels, etc.  As I understand it, moving the conference at this late date would be virtually impossible due to the tasks of finding a new site, establishing new contracts, etc.  Further, either moving or cancelling would require ESA to break numerous contracts it has signed which would lead to substantial penalties.  These would be in addition to the absence of an annual meeting revenue if we were to cancel.

Also note that many of the hotels we contract with are part of large chains, the convention centers are, to some degree, networked as are the companies that provide services.  Thus, if we break a contract, it could make establishing future contracts more difficult and more expensive for the Society.

Beyond the fiscal issues, it is core to the essence of the Society to have a meeting each year and communicate science, provide platforms for networking, etc.

All of these considerations are far less important than the safety or well-being of membership.  Which is why I thought it was important to investigate the situation in Louisville closely (see above).

What now?

Here is what I am working on right now to address the issue.

First, I plan to continue conversations with Fairness Campaign to see what steps might be taken locally to make the meeting location more inviting to LGBTQ+ members of our Society.  Again, the reviews of Louisville are excellent; however, I want to dig a bit deeper on this.

Second, I have reached out to the Mayors office in Louisville.  He has been a strong advocate for fairness and I am hoping that he will directly engage our concerns.

Third, I am looking into the California travel ban.  I know that the City of Louisville requested an exemption [LINK]; however, I am not sure of the outcome, etc.  I will be inquiring with the Mayors office and the Louisville Chamber of Commerce to see what information they might have on this issue.

Fourth, I will be looking into ways to increase the virtual content of the meeting.  For anyone who would like to attend but cannot travel, or do not want to put on the carbon footprint, it would be helpful if more content was streaming and/or preserved in a kind of virtual library for ESA members.

Fifth, I met with the members of Inclusive Ecology at the New Orleans meeting and have a set of notes from their ideas that I will be pouring through to glean action items.

Last, I am looking for ESA members who are willing to engage issues of inclusiveness and equity for the upcoming annual meeting and, possibly, beyond.  I am thinking of a working group format.

Beyond all of these measures that I am taking, the Society leadership is also fully engaged and looking for solutions.

I want to thank all the members who have been sharing their ideas and concerns with me directly and via social media.  Your input is greatly appreciated by myself and others involved in planning the annual meeting.

Ryan McEwan |@mcewanlab |