Photos by Melanie Thortis
Lance Bass is very comfortable in his own skin — more so than many of his counterparts in Hollywood. He’s proud of all the things that make him who he is, including his Mississippi roots.
However, Mississippi has not made Bass, one-fifth of the former pop group *NSYNC, proud in recent months; he has felt personally slighted by the political agendas being pushed and wants to use his celebrity platform for the betterment of the state, pushing his own agenda of love, unity and peace.
“I hate politics. It has divided our country. But as a concerned Mississippian, I have to speak up when I know something is wrong,” he said.
Bass, a Laurel native, attended Clinton High School until 1996 when he left to join the multi-platinum boy band. He very publicly came out as gay on the cover of People magazine in 2006. Shortly after, he received the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award and has become a huge advocate for LGBT rights and equality. In 2015, Bass married artist Michael Turchin in a high-profile event that was televised on E! Entertainment Television.
“I am proud to say I have educated myself on several issues and have an open mind to listen to every side of an issue. I’m lucky to be in a position where people know me, and they trust me. I have a huge heart and will always try to do the right thing,” Bass said.
With the passage of House Bill 1523 (the “religious freedom” bill) during the 2016 Legislative session, Bass is afraid politicians in the state are causing Mississippi a great deal of irreparable damage.
“The passing of this bill has once again reminded me how far we still need to progress in Mississippi. The rhetoric behind this bill is overwhelming, and I can understand why some Mississippians could be fooled into believing it actually does good,” he said.
The bill, blocked by U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves minutes before it was to take effect, would have allowed Mississippi residents — including state employees, religious groups and private companies — to refuse certain services to LGBT people, protecting them from penalties or retaliations.
Supporters claim it would have protected religious freedoms by not forcing those who have strong moral convictions against homosexuality to provide services to same-sex couples. But opponents saw it as a blanket permit for discrimination and a violation of civil rights.
“It’s hard to articulate to someone not willing to listen how this bill is plain and simple discrimination. If people actually took the time to educate themselves on how it is, no one with a heart would agree with it. Minds are sadly made up once they hear the words ‘religious freedom,’” Bass said.
Celebrities, artists, government leaders and corporate executives nationwide have boycotted the law, which was set to go into effect July 1, by refusing to do business with or in Mississippi. Bass is one of the few who has not turned his back on the state and is instead encouraging residents to speak up and fight for equality.
“It is very well known that I am from Mississippi. I get attacked every single time something like this happens in my state. Once again, I am made fun of because I’m from such a ‘backwards state.’ And the sad thing is, I can’t argue with them. Our people have let the state government get away with really ignorant laws,” Bass said.
“The people of Mississippi have to have their voices heard. They have to call their representatives and express concern about this bill. There is no reason at all to waste our taxpayers’ money on passing legalized discrimination. It’s just wrong,” he said.
Bass, who has become a household name as a TV and radio host, actor, producer, writer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, has even tried to work with entertainment promoters to organize what he calls a love concert that would raise money to fund lobbying efforts against the bill. But, sadly, the damage has already been done.
“Unfortunately it was impossible to get any artists to come set foot in Mississippi for this. I spent months begging acts to do it. They all have such disdain for what has passed that they have completely given up on our state. It is so sad,” he said.
Bass, however, said he can’t give up on the state he loves so much.
“I could never turn my back on the state that raised me. It’s my blood. You can disagree with family and still have love. It’s up to me to help educate my home that it needs to change,” he said.
It’s time for Mississippi to reclaim its moniker as the Hospitality State, Bass said. Growing up here, that’s exactly how he felt about the state.
“Mississippi is special to me because it influenced who I became as a person. I felt very safe growing up here,” he said. “I loved the feeling of community and giving back, which I learned from growing up in the church. The older I get, the more I understand we need to get back to that mentality. We need to help the underdog. We need to love our neighbors no matter what their background.”
Bass practices what he preaches. For the past several years, he has been an active board member of the Environmental Media Association, an organization that has helped build gardens in inner-city schools throughout L.A. In April, Bass helped expand the program to his own elementary school in Clinton.
“With the help of the EMA and sponsors like Kellogg, we have planted our first community garden. It gives a place for the town to come together. It also gives kids a chance to learn about nature and nutrition. They get so excited getting their hands dirty and have a sense of accomplishment when they see something grow. It’s never too early to teach kids about what they are putting into their bodies. We are what we eat,” he said.
Change starts with the younger generations. Just like instilling hands-on knowledge of good nutrition in children helps fight the obesity epidemic in the future, teaching young people about love and acceptance paves the way for better understanding and tolerance for all differences.
“Our lawmakers are living in the past. We need our young people to get excited about the future of our state. They need to learn about politics and run for office. Open minds and open hearts are needed to combat the hate so many have in their hearts,” Bass said. “We can actually change the way the world looks at us. We can’t be so proud that we think everyone else is the problem.”
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