While everyone was hashtagging that they were standing with Gavin, South Dakota passed a law that will allow religiously affiliated adoption agencies to refuse to work with same-sex couples and still receive state funding. This was largely overlooked in the face of what was a major news event, with the Supreme Court deciding not to hear Gavin Grimm’s case. Yet what is overlooked in Gavin’s case as well as the South Dakota law and most other major news events that affect LGBT people is that they aren’t happening in New York, California, or Washington State; they’re happening in all those deep red states. The ones that no one seems to notice until there’s something to complain about or it’s a major athletic event like the Final Four or the college bowl games. Sometimes, it doesn’t get noticed at all, like when the LGBT community center in Tulsa, Okla., was vandalized last week. It must have gotten lost in the fog of the gay Beauty and the Beast character.
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? These red state LGBT events tend to be overlooked far too often until they affect everyone else or are so extreme they cause the community at large to step back and clutch their pearls. It’s either all tragedy or triumph, and everything in between is lost in the shuffle of articles about the latest gay celebrity sighting or "powerful statement" in a work of art that kind of looks like every other "powerful statement" made by some indie filmmaker, photographer, or whatever else tugs at your heartstrings. For everything else, it’s all just kind of meh.
I admittedly have a well-deserved reputation in LGBT media for being cynical, contradictory, and a bit of a killjoy. For me, it mostly comes from seeing what gains the attention of social justice activists in and out of the LGBT community, what really gets them going. All too often I see them expend far more energy on things that mean nothing in the long run but hardly notice major issues until it’s too late to do anything but react and hope it doesn’t hurt as badly. There has been no shortage of articles and comments that effectively say, "Screw the red states, let them rot," by folks who want to yell about the violence against trans women. Yet when five of the seven trans women killed this year have been in those red states — where there are really no hate-crimes laws and we know that the police are not going to prioritize these crimes because the victims are not only trans but people of color — that’s hardly mentioned.
There is a massive divide between the experiences of LGBT people in red states and blue, which yes, does cause much of the general curmudgeonly tone in my articles. While many in the blue states enjoy friendly legislatures, protection through hate-crimes legislation and antidiscrimination laws, and a generally progressive culture at large, those in many of the red have none of those — yet LGBT culture, media, and activism are still dominated by those in the blue, to confusing and frustrating results. I can read all about how some town in New Jersey has a trans woman prom queen, yet in these red states, gay kids are often not even allowed at prom. The priorities in activism are so different too. After same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, one of the largest LGBT activist groups in New York State shut down, saying the work was done. A lot of people were upset because there were still job protection laws, bathroom laws, and adoption laws to work on, but it to me was symbolic of the situation I’m talking abou — how those in parts of the country who have all these protections and rights seem to do so little to help those in places just a few miles away who do not, to a degree that’s shocking.
One just casual example goes back to Gavin’s case and a few people I follow on Twitter; they’re good people, they’re idealists, but a few of them seem to have a bit of a disconnect. They were complaining about the American Civil Liberties Union wanting volunteers to do some grunt work when it just had a large influx of cash and how it’ll defend "fascists." Now, let’s take a moment to remember that the ACLU was instrumental in defeating "don’t ask, don’t tell" and helped win marriage equality, just as the most recent examples of its support for LGBT people. Sure, it’ll defend a neo-Nazi’s right to free speech, but it’ll also defend ours. Don’t forget that the ACLU is the group taking Gavin’s case through the courts and is actively fighting these anti-LGBT bills going through red state legislatures. Yet here are LGBT people complaining about the ACLU because it’s asking for unpaid volunteers and defends people we find disagreeable. The ones doing that complaining, I noted, were all blue state folks.
Sure, this is selective but it’s an indicator of that divorce in realities between red and blue state LGBT folks. Those in blue states have the privilege to complain about the occasional moral ambiguity of the ACLU, while those in red states rely on the ACLU to defend them with regularity. Those of us in these red places don’t have the luxury of really worrying about the "problematic" things like college guest speakers, awards shows, TV and movie plots, or offensive song lyrics to the same degree those in the blue do. Our concerns are much more in the here and now of our daily lives. Now, this is not to say that a terrible portrayal of a trans woman in the movies isn’t bad and shouldn’t be called out; it’s just that to us in these places, it seems trivial. To borrow a phrase from a movie, it's "polishing the brass on the Titanic" to us. We have state legislatures passing laws meant to take away our rights, to deny us our humanity, and there are people out there complaining about movie characters.
Sure, many of these people in the blue states care and want to help, but I can’t help but feel frustrations similar to those other minority groups feel when it seems so little is done by blue staters. Like all the people who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline with hashtags and posts on Facebook but couldn’t tell you any of the other issues facing Native American communities (and really only spoke up about Native rights on Columbus Day, and that’s just to change the name of the holiday). There are those who work for the rights of people of color who get frustrated, and rightfully so, when people seem to care when a black man gets killed by police but fade away when the headline disappears from the news and can’t be found when it’s time to lobby the city council or state legislature for police reform. There are those who work in women’s reproductive health who constantly grit their teeth when people talk about abortion access in places like California, when it’s states like Texas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma that need the most funds and work.
The hard work is not done by hashtags and sharing a Medium article with all of your friends while sitting in a safely blue city and state; it’s done in the red states where these freedoms are constantly challenged. Calls from the left to "leave the red states to rot" or to snarkily tell us to move or even to describe local activism as problematic don't help. Certainly, waiting for "trickle-down equality" to finally reach us hasn’t helped in the least, since we all thought Obama’s Department of Justice was going to settle the bathroom issue once and for all, and there was no fight in the state legislatures for these rights in many places. LGBT rights and equality had a great run under Obama, but it’s like many folks in these blue states had the view of that equality lobby that shut down after it got what it wanted and didn’t realize there’s a lot more out there to fight for.
If we are still America, a republic of 50 unique states and a nation of 320 million people, then we need to recognize that while sometimes we feel upset that the brass is tarnished, there are those of us down below drowning as the ship sinks around us. Those things that are problematic to you are trivial to us in view of the immediate threats to our rights and safety. Again, I don’t want to disparage some of these things that do cause upset and offense, because they should be addressed, yet there are those of us in this country whose reality is the subject of the Oscar-nominated film that you are upset about because it cast a straight actor.
When the people in my state have the same rights and protections as those living in New York or California do, with no chance of having them taken away, I’ll be right there with you complaining about the "problematic" things. For now, though, I have to wonder where the help is for those of us who live the realities of your fears.