The CEO of a massive gamers' convention that threatened to leave Indiana earlier this year over a controversial religious freedom law said Thursday that organizers are "shopping the show" to other cities and could relocate if lawmakers don't expand protections for gays and lesbians.
Cities across the U.S. have courted convention organizers since Gov. Mike Pence signed the initial bill in March, provoking national uproar from critics who believed it would sanction discrimination against gay people. Backlash prompted lawmakers to make changes forbidding discrimination, but they stopped short of extending civil rights protections to the LGBT community, as some cities — including Indianapolis— have done.
Adrian Swartout, the CEO of Gen Con, told The Associated Press on Thursday on the convention's opening day that a competitive offer from a state that grants gays and lesbians that status could be a "catalyst" pushing the event to relocate when its contract expires in 2020. Chicago has shown interest and Orlando also is a possibility, she said.
Even if the state did not pass the religious freedom law, Swartout said it would be routine for organizers to seek other offers.
"If we have opportunity to be in places that have state protections, that might make the deal," Swartout said. "This is important to us."
Pence opposes proposals to give lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people statewide civil rights protections. When recently asked about the possibility of Gen Con leaving over LGBT rights, Pence refused to answer.
Gen Con's departure could mean a significant drop in revenue. The convention draws thousands of costumed damsels, dungeon masters and game aficionados to Indianapolis each year. Last year, more than 56,000 people visited, bringing in an estimated $67 million in revenue.
Speaking of the possibility of Gen Con relocating, Chris Gahl, vice president of the tourism booster group Visit Indy, said "there are many factors at play. One of which is their desire to have civil protections."
Inside the convention, many were keenly aware of the debate over the religious freedom law.
"There's a stereotype about the Midwest as being country folk and rubes, which I know is not true" said T-shirt vendor Brian Callahan, 43, of Portland, Oregon. But he added that the law, "just helps reinforce" that idea.
Dressed in a head-to-toe suit of chain mail, Rhode Island physics teacher Ann Walkup said laws that do not fully protect gays and lesbians are anathema to the inclusive culture of Gen Con.
"I would certainly understand if Gen Con up and moved to somewhere else that epitomized the core of what we represent," said Walkup, 33.
Another attendee told stories of discrimination experienced in the wake of the religious objection law. Emily Kubisz, of Lafayette, said a customer at her job refused to work with her during the uproar over the bill.
"The whole LGBT community has felt the bad sides of that law," said Kubisz, 42, who self-identified as LGBT. "It gave people license to be more discriminatory. They felt legitimized because of this law."
Swartout says factors besides just the state's LGBT laws will be considered when deciding the convention's future location. But, she said, those laws will be "one part of the equation."
Recently, she met with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who wasn't committed to passing new legislation but told her lawmakers were discussing the idea.
In the meantime, she's willing to be patient.
"It's appropriate for all of us to give (lawmakers) some room to try to work this out," she said.