Last One Out, Turn Off the Lights… a Bittersweet Goodbye to a State That Is Pushing Us Out

“No seriously. All the businesses downtown close early on Friday and it’s a huge party! Let’s go to Downtown Alive!”

I was blown away hearing how much fun people had here in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1999. Parking on a side street downtown, we walked a few blocks over and the streets were closed for a huge party. A band was playing, food trucks were set up, and beer was flowing.  White, Black, Old, Young, Gay and Straight – everyone was having a good time, dancing, “cutting up” and enjoying music that I had never heard before. I found where I wanted to live.

I was hooked and moved from Connecticut several months later. That was 24 years ago. I met my soon-to-be husband and convinced him to move here. He went on to get not one but two bachelor’s degrees from UL and a few years ago finished his MBA – a proud Ragin Cajun. (Truthfully, they have one of the best nursing schools in the state here that prepared him well).

I got involved politically helping on John Breaux’s final election cycle and soon became a board member of LAGPAC, the Lesbian and Gay Political Action Committee. We passed what ended up being a strong, first-in-the-south Hate Crime Prevention legislation – things were improving for LGBTQ families. But we had more to do, so I focused my time nationally as board co-chair for the National Stonewall Democrats PAC.

Danny went from working as a nurse assistant while going to nursing school to becoming a cardiopulmonary specialized nurse until he felt a calling to psychiatric nursing, serving as everything from charge nurse to CNO, even taking a contract while finishing his MBA at the state mental health hospital dealing with some of the most complex and violent patients. He was ultimately recruited by Lafayette General, now Ochsner, to run their Behavioral Health Unit here in Lafayette.  Not long after his recruitment he was promoted to regional director, where he took on the Kaplan Behavioral Health Unit as well.

While Danny was helping people, I was helping people, in my own way. I took the helm of the Louisiana Democratic Party as its chief executive, fighting for the hard-working people of our state. Our first election cycle was brutal. We lost Mary Landrieu from the US Senate. What a massive loss for our state and for our party. However, the work we did building our party in Mary’s election fell to the benefit of a small-town legislator from Amite, Louisiana – John Bel Edwards.  I was proud to play a small, though not insignificant role in electing him against brutal odds. Four years later, we took on even more formidable odds and re-elected him.

Shortly after taking his hand off the bible in his first term, Governor John Bel Edwards signed an executive order protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. He followed in the steps of previous Democratic governors.  Jeff Landry, our current attorney general, fought tooth and nail to be able to discriminate against us. We lost that round in the courts, sadly. Even with that loss, the governor never stopped fighting for us.

During this governor’s service, we beat back terribly discriminatory legislation against our families. We even witnessed the Governor hiring our first-ever openly trans press secretary, too!  Never once did our governor flinch in his support or realization that we are residents and taxpayers just like everyone else and that we deserved to be treated no better than, but certainly not worse than others in this state.

Recently, fueled by hate and disinformation, we have seen legislation banning books that acknowledge our existence and that stand between our kids and us in healthcare decisions. Even now as I write this, Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is trying desperately to be the next governor, is chasing women across state lines as they flee the state to save their own lives and receive healthcare.

Hate crimes are on the rise. Bigotry is on display everywhere you look fueled by an unchecked right wing that is hell-bent on fomenting this “us vs. them” mentality – as if Equality was some sort of zero-sum game.

We quickly came to the conclusion earlier this year that it is no longer safe for us to live in Louisiana. If you are a woman, LGBTQ, Black or really anything other than a middle-aged white heterosexual man, it is just not safe to live in Louisiana.

So we are moving to Michigan. A top hospital system recruited Danny to run a new behavioral health hospital. Luckily, with my consulting business, I can live anywhere. While Louisiana is moving backward, Michigan, under the leadership of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, is working hard to attract those fleeing for their own safety, security, and livelihood. We have answered her call.

I think it is important to make this point.  Leaving with us are our two top wage-earning salaries, my small business, our income taxes, sales tax, and property taxes. Our two incomes contribute so much to the local community by way of everything including doggy daycare and vet bills for two Great Danes, frequent nights out at local restaurants, groceries, insurance premiums, movies, comedy club visits, and more. And we are not alone.

Reports are rampant that people are leaving the state. With staggering numbers in maternal and infant mortality rates, combined with Louisiana chasing last place in virtually every bad list, it’s no wonder. Conversations abound with people looking for their escape from Louisiana. Businesses trying to locate here get pushback from staff who don’t see this as a welcoming place. We have been having conversations with other professionals in the area who frequently say, “We are looking for our way out too!” and “Get out while you can!”

The Attorney General, the man who wants to be the next Governor even said “If you don’t like it, you should leave.” OK, Jeff. OK.

To everyone we leave behind: Wake up and pay attention – either stay and fight or make your plan to escape.

And last one out, please turn off the lights.

Stephen Handwerk spent nearly 9 years as the Executive Director of the Louisiana Democratic Party and now is a top Democratic Strategist consulting with Democratic state parties and progressive vendors.  He and Danny will celebrate their 22 Anniversary in October.  We were inspired to tell our story publically after reading James Finn’s piece about Dr. Jake Kleinmahon’s family decision to leave last month.

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