About Austin as the Site for the 2020 Annual Meeting
In 2014, SAA hosted its annual meeting in Austin, Texas, and the attendance at that meeting set a new record. Feedback from members about Austin and the meeting venue was very positive. In 2015, in the wake of the successful 2014 meeting, SAA contracted to host its annual meeting in Austin again in 2020. It is normal for organizations of SAA’s size to book venues for their annual meeting five to six years in advance. In fact, SAA has signed meeting contracts through 2024. The American Anthropological Association, Archaeological Institute of America, and Society for Classical Studies have booked their meetings through 2025 and SHA through 2022.
In June 2017, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed into law HB 3859—a bill that allows child welfare organizations to refuse to place a child in the care of LGBTQ couples, interfaith couples, single parents, married couples in which one prospective parent has previously been divorced, or other parents to whom the agency has a religious objection. It will also allow taxpayer-funded agencies to refuse to provide services to children if the agency has a religious objection to that service. A week later, in response to the new law, California added Texas to the list of states that it bans state employees and officials from using tax money for travel to, based on laws that California deems discriminatory regarding LGBTQIA+ issues.
The Texas legislature continues to bring forward legislation that LGBTQIA+ rights advocates say will allow increased discrimination. One of the most egregious examples was Senate Bill 17, which would have allowed any state-licensed professional to refuse service to anyone they chose, based on “deeply held religious beliefs.” Senate Bill 17 was defeated in 2017 and again in 2019. But in May 2019, the Texas legislature approved Senate Bill 1978, which prohibits government entities from retaliating against any person or business based on their affiliation with or support of a religious organization. Opponents of the bill say that it will encourage discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community and members of minority religious faiths.
Human rights issues are among the criteria used in evaluating and selecting cities and states for meeting locations. SAA did not and could not anticipate the changes to Texas law that would take place after 2015 when the organization signed the contract for the 2020 annual meeting in Austin. These new laws have created rightful concerns for our membership. The SAA remains committed to choosing meeting locations that respect the rights of all our members based on information that is available at the time a selection is made and the contract is signed. If discriminatory laws, such as HB 3859 and others currently being considered in Texas, had been in place in 2015 when the SAA was contracting for the location of its 2020 annual meeting, Austin would not have been selected. But contracts have consequences, and if SAA were to break its contracts and cancel its meetings in Austin, the cost in penalties to the SAA membership would be more than $600,000. More importantly, even without the financial penalties, it would be impossible to find and book a new venue that could accommodate the size and complexity of an SAA annual meeting in less than a year.
SAA recognizes that for members who work for the state of California there will be financial restrictions on travel to the annual meeting in Texas. However, there are some exceptions to those restrictions, and we encourage anyone affected to consider in particular if exceptions 5 or 6 might apply.
SAA recognizes that it may be difficult for some members to choose to attend a meeting in Texas after its legislature has passed laws that allow increased discrimination against members of the LGBTQIA+ community. However, Austin as a city and community has a well-earned reputation for being inclusive and welcoming to all. Here are some facts about the city shared by Visit Austin:
- Austin has a PERFECT 100 scorecard for LGBTQ rights by the Human Rights Campaign. The Municipal Equality Index (MEI) examines how inclusive municipal laws, policies, and services are of LGBTQ people who live and work there. Cities are rated based on nondiscrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement, and the city leadership’s public position on equality.
- The City of Austin has a Human Rights Commission. The purpose of the commission is to advise and consult with the city council on all matters involving racial, religious, or ethnic discrimination and devise practices to promote equal opportunity. The commission advises on nondiscrimination policies, aids in forming local community groups, investigates complaints of prejudice and discrimination, conducts educational programs, and secures for all individuals in the city freedom from discrimination based on race, color, disability, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or age (section 2-1-148 of the city code).
- The City of Austin also has an LGBTQ Quality of Life Commission, the purpose of which is to represent this constituency of the city by serving as an advisory board to the city council concerning the needs of the named population (section 2-1-106 of the city code).
- The Austin Mayor’s Office has an LGBTQ Liaison.
- Visit Austin does not support discriminatory legislation of any kind and actively promotes the inclusive nature of their city and state. Visit Austin participates in multiple statewide nondiscriminatory coalitions, including Keep Texas Open, Texas Welcomes All, and Texas Competes.
SAA is looking at ways that we can communicate to Texas legislators and the Texas business community that discriminatory laws impact the safety of SAA’s members and will be a basis for rejecting Texas as a location for our annual meeting in the future. The 2019 session of the Texas legislature ended on May 27, but SAA will closely monitor and report on legislative activities in 2020 preceding our annual meeting in Austin.
To help annual meeting participants prepare for their time in Austin, SAA has compiled a list of links to travel information, including “The Ultimate Field Guide to LGBTQ Austin.” In addition, there will be links to information and resources about Austin-area LGBTQIA+ community support and events.