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).
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.
firstname.lastname@example.org |@mcewanlab | http://www.mcewanlab.org
Thanks very much, Ryan, for your proactive communication! Yes, ESA leadership has been working on this and we did work to connect with Inclusive Ecology section and other groups (this past week in New Orleans) – some excellent suggestions we are going to follow up on. And we are continuing to invite suggestions, feedback, and assistance. Louisville may be an unusually visible case – but we are also aware that many ESA members find it difficult or impossible to attend each year (no matter the location). So your (and our) attempts during this next year to find ways of making meeting content and value more widely available and accessible – even to those not attending – will be timely and important.
Looking beyond 2019, have noticed that on the ESA website (and in the financial docs dating to mid-2017) that meetings are scheduled only through 2020. Are we under contract for any other sites? I think this is something the membership should be aware of.
I surely do hope that our society can avoid this problem in the future by not booking meetings in states that have these laws that legalize discrimination. Moreover, I think it would be advisable for to include an escape clause in case there is state-level legislation that passes after contracts are signed. I’ve heard that other societies have used these such clauses in the aftermath of AB 1887. I’m sure these are rather obvious points for folks who are engaged in the process, but I just wanted to raise this.
In the short term, rather than seeing an exception from authorities from the State of California, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to seek a formal suspension of the law in Kentucky? After all, the problem California’s law is not the problem here.
Thank you for the input.
As I understand it, the contract for Louisville was signed in 2013. Right now we have Salt Lake City on the books for 2020 and Portland contracted for 2023- but I do not believe we have settled on cities for 2021 and 2022, and I do not even know what options are being considered.
The Society is looking into a broad set of policy actions to address this issue going forward, and certainly your suggestions are welcome and on the table.
Many Ky organziations and the City of Louisville continue to push hard against discrimination in all its forms, including overturning this state law. Like many progressive cities in the southeast, they face a complex and ongoing challenge, they are on the front lines, and they need help.