Fabian Nelson is ready to make history as Mississippi’s first LGBTQ state lawmaker
During the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s National Champagne Brunch Sunday morning in Washington, D.C., the Washington Blade spoke with Fabian Nelson, a Black and gay Democratic candidate who could become the first out LGBTQ lawmaker ever to serve in the Mississippi Legislature.
Nelson will square off against two opponents from his party in the Aug. 8 primary. If successful, he would face a general election on Nov. 7, an easier gambit provided the seat to represent Mississippi’s 66th House District is solidly Democratic, Nelson said.
Notwithstanding his electoral prospects, Nelson acknowledged the challenges with racism and homophobia that he has continued to contend with as a candidate, along with the hostile political environment in which he would serve if elected. Still, he is optimistic about the trajectory of his campaign and for the potential to move Mississippi in a better direction.
“I come from a family of a lot of ‘firsts,’” Nelson said. His grandfather opened a bank in the early 1900s for Black residents of his hometown, while his grandmother was the first Black nurse to integrate the hospital in Yazoo City and his father was the first Black graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s dental school.
“They keep raising the bar, so I have to raise it a little bit higher,” he said.
Mississippi has a Republican trifecta as well as a Republican triplex, which means the party exerts tremendous political power with control over both chambers of the state’s legislature and the governorship, along with the offices of the secretary of state and attorney general.
If elected, Nelson would represent residents of Mississippi’s majority-Black state capital, Jackson – which has long suffered with issues like high poverty rates and rising crime, including gun violence.
Years of poor governance have exacerbated these problems, while the state’s conservative legislators have used the city’s condition as a pretext to strip residents of the right to choose their elected leaders.
Nelson has an expansive range of policy areas that he said will be major priorities should he win the House seat, from expanding Mississippi’s Medicaid program to fighting back against the conservatives’ disenfranchisement of his constituents in Jackson and their harmful anti-LGBTQ legislative proposals.
Anti-LGBTQ legislative bigotry coupled with homophobic personal attacks
During Mississippi’s first legislative session of 2023, lawmakers considered 31 anti-LGBTQ bills, more than were introduced anywhere else in the country.
Nelson, who was involved in advocacy against these legislative proposals as a member of the Human Rights Campaign, noted the importance of mobilizing the public’s opposition to anti-equality bills in helping to defeat 30 of those 31 proposals that failed to pass in the last session.
Unfortunately, Nelson said, the lone bill that survived was perhaps the most harmful of those under consideration in the chamber – a measure barring access to guideline directed gender affirming health care interventions for youth in Mississippi with gender dysphoria, which the governor signed into law in late February.
It was a major blow, Nelson acknowledged. At the same time, he said, pushing back more effectively against Republican messaging on the healthcare ban, such as by framing its proponents as politicians who are trying to “play doctor,” may have yielded a different outcome.
Nelson is not just encountering anti-LGBTQ bigotry in the legislative context, but also that which has been directed at him personally as a gay candidate for public office in a deep-red state in the Deep South. Especially in Mississippi and among older folks in the state, homophobia can come from voters and elected officials even from his own party, Nelson said.
“I think [my] being LGBTQ may pose a problem with some of the Democratic lawmakers” in the chamber, he said.
Nelson told the Blade one of his supporters, an 80-year-old Jackson resident whom he affectionately calls “Miss Emma,” was approached by a Democratic opponent who asked her, “How do you feel about [Nelson] being gay with his [LGBTQ] agenda?”
“All these years, I’ve voted for straight people,” Nelson said she told him. “None of them came and picked my garbage up or cleaned my flowerbed out.”
Following the city government’s shutdown of trash hauling services earlier this month, Nelson said he had personally been picking up and disposing of garbage for Miss Emma along with Jackson’s other elderly or disabled residents.
Nelson said effectuating real change is possible when pro-equality candidates run for office, fight for their constituents, establish relationships with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and communicate effectively with the public about what is (and is not) happening in the Capitol building to encourage more active civic engagement and strengthen political organizing efforts.
Entrenched issues of racial justice
Nelson’s campaign comes amid the scandal over the GOP-led Tennessee House of Representatives’ expulsion of two Black Democratic lawmakers from the chamber, which was widely denounced as racially motivated.
Meanwhile, over the Mississippi border into Alabama, the state’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey last week ousted the Black director of early childhood education, Barbara Cooper, for including teaching on concepts like inclusion and structural racism.
Asked how he expects to contend with racism in the chamber if elected, Nelson said conflict can be minimized and discussions made more productive in many cases by practicing active listening so those with different views feel heard.
“You don’t have to be the loudest one in the room to make an impact” he said, so long as you are “standing your ground when it comes to bad legislation and, you know, standing my ground and fighting for what I believe in, not backing down.”
Engaging members of the public and bringing them into the fold is another crucial tool, Nelson said. He pointed to the public outcry in Tennessee and across the country that led voters to return state Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones to their democratically elected seats in the legislature.
Residents in Jackson were not only deprived by their government of garbage collection services, but also suffered the near collapse of the city’s water system, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to step in with a lawsuit last year on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights.
Meanwhile, rising crime in Jackson and calls for an increased police presence created the pretext for Mississippi’s Republican lawmakers to pass H.B. 1020, legislation that will allow conservative state officials to appoint, rather than allowing constituents to elect, judges and prosecutors in the city’s sprawling Capitol Complex Improvement District.
They will serve alongside a Capitol Police force whose jurisdiction was expanded despite the department’s officers having shot four citizens since last August with little explanation or accountability.
News that the governor signed H.B. 1020 into law last week had instigated protests, by which point Nelson said it was already too late. He said the time to rally opposition among voters, which would have first required effectively reaching them with information about how the law would strip them of political power and autonomy to pick their elected officials, was immediately after Republican lawmakers had introduced it.
“If you have the citizens, the people, in your corner,” he said, “you cannot lose when you start exposing this bad stuff that’s happening.”
“And one more thing,” Nelson said, pointing to a pin on the lapel of his jacket, “this is our new state flag.”
Four years ago, amid considerable pressure from the public, the GOP-controlled legislature made the extraordinary decision to replace Mississippi’s state flag that had flown since 1894, which depicted the Confederate battle flag in its upper left canton.
The new banner features a white magnolia blossom befitting of the state’s official nickname.
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