Three years ago Justin Hudgins and Ben Allen were in the throes of planning – they were getting married, saying “I do” after years together in Fort Worth, Texas. The plans seemed endless, in some ways – their wedding itself was going to be in Mexico, an intimate ceremony with family and close friends, and once they returned home they wanted to have a gathering of other friends and loved ones back in Fort Worth. There was a lot to think about – the wedding, the trip to Mexico, the celebration there, and then the party back at home.
But the couple’s plans were derailed when they reached out to All Occasion Party Place just outside of Fort Worth and after a quick discussion with the owner, the answer was clear: No, Justin and Ben couldn’t rent the space, because they were gay.
Justin couldn’t believe the response – surely there must be a misunderstanding, he thought. He sent an email back to the venue to clarify: “I just want to get this straight – me and my husband just want to rent this space. It’s not for a wedding. Are you telling me we can’t rent the space because we’re gay?”
Her response was crystal clear: “It is because of God that I will not be a part in your reception, and I know he loves you, but not what you are doing. I simply said I cannot rent to you, which is also my right.”
“A few years ago, I thought we were moving forward with equality – and now it feels like we’re taking more steps back. Discrimination is still relevant and still real – it’s definitely happening. But in some ways, it’s a taboo subject.” – Justin Hudgins
Justin and Ben reached out to community members for support, and the story soon made local and regional news.
“Once it got on the news, an outpouring from the community came, both good and bad,” Justin said.
Friends, neighbors and other local venues offered other event spaces that Justin and Ben could rent for free or at an extreme discount, and Texans across the state announced their opposition to such blatant discrimination.
But as heart-warming as that support felt, it was matched with a fierce anger. People wrote to Ben and Justin on email and social media or commented on news stories: “Burn in Hell. Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Sinners.”
One person found where Justin and Ben lived and spray painted “fags” on the fence outside of their home. Suddenly, an attempt to simply rent a space to celebrate a happy occasion with friends and family members became an ugly act of vandalism.
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Ben and Justin tried not to get discouraged – but there was no getting around it…it was discouraging.
“It almost felt like a sucker-punch to the face,” Ben told reporters at the time. “I thought, in today’s day and age, for someone to deny you simply because you date someone of the same sex, it doesn’t really make sense to me.” And then on top of that, for someone to vandalize their fence with a homophobic slur felt like an additional blow.
“Then love really rose above all of that,” Justin told Freedom for All Americans this year. “People from around the neighborhood reached out to us and offered their help, and people from all over came to our house to help paint the fence. Some of them brought their kids. It was a beautiful show of support.”
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Right now the United States Supreme Court is considering the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, which involves many of the same issues that Ben and Justin faced four years ago.
The difference is that in Colorado, a state law already prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, including in places of public accommodation like businesses. The baker in the Supreme Court case wants a religious exemption from following the law.
In Texas, there are no state-level protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Officially, Ben and Justin had no legal recourse from the discrimination they experienced when they were denied the event space rental. But if the Supreme Court issues a terrible ruling, they could establish a constitutional “license to discriminate” that could gut non-discrimination protections everywhere, including where the LGBTQ movement has already advanced.
“If the Supreme Court says we can be discriminated against because of someone’s religious beliefs, where would you draw the line? It just makes no sense,” Justin said. “If you live in the Deep South and you say you’re not comfortable with black people, can you deny service to black people? What if a Muslim person wanted to deny a cake to a Christian person?”
Ben and Justin were turned away because of their sexual orientation – and now, the discrimination they faced could become legal nationwide. It’s a scary thought, Justin said.
“A few years ago, I thought we were moving forward with equality – and now it feels like we’re taking more steps back,” Justin said. “Discrimination is still relevant and still real – it’s definitely happening. But in some ways, it’s a taboo subject.”
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That’s why it’s so important that more Americans raise their voices about the importance of protecting all people – including LGBTQ people – from discrimination. And that’s why it’s been amazing to watch voices from across the country speak out about the Masterpiece case, anti-LGBTQ legislation in states like Texas and North Carolina, and why it’s so important that our country remain open to all.
In December 2017 more than 500 businesses came together as part of Freedom for All Americans’ Small Businesses Against LGBTQ Discrimination, declaring that businesses open to the public must be open to everyone on the same terms.
For Justin and Ben, it’s a familiar conversation: Justin works with his father to run his family’s business, and right now, Justin and Ben are preparing to open their own business – a salon in Fort Worth.
“I grew up in the construction industry,” Justin said, sharing that his dad has run a roofing and construction company since 1980. Justin has been working with his dad for years – and throughout it all, he’s seen as his father has journeyed toward acceptance of LGBTQ equality.
Justin’s used to seeing people grapple with these issues. His father and most of his family are part of the Republican Party, as are most of people with whom Justin works. It’s no secret that in recent years the Republican Party has lagged in support for LGBTQ equality.
“If I didn’t do business with people’s lifestyles I personally endorsed – if I turned them away – I wouldn’t be doing business with 80% of my customers. But that’s not how this works. We operate a business, we sell a service, and we do that for everyone.” – Justin Hudgins
Still – people change their minds when they get to know who LGBTQ people are, and it’s important to nurture and continue those conversations. “With me and my dad, it’s been a process,” Justin said. “It took a long time for him to come around to me being gay. But we’re a close-knit family, and they support me.”
Given his experience in small business – and his preparations to open his own (a project years in the making, he says) with his husband Ben in January 2018, Justin knows that at operating a small business requires treating everyone with respect and understanding that you’re not always going to agree with your customers. It goes to the question at the heart of the Supreme Court Masterpiece case: The understanding that serving everyone equally does not require anything other than serving them equally.
“If I didn’t do business with people’s lifestyles I personally endorsed – if I turned them away – I wouldn’t be doing business with 80% of my customers. But that’s not how this works. We operate a business, we sell a service, and we do that for everyone.”