The South's Longer Wait for Equality

While steps toward marriage equality come fast and furious, the South drags its feet.

BY Neal Broverman

May 20 2013 4:00 AM ET

Will Batts, executive director of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Center.

As much of the country breathlessly followed the coverage of the Supreme Court’s two marriage equality cases in March, Will Batts was busy fighting battles on numerous fronts. The executive director of Tennessee’s Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center operates in a setting only 900 miles (but still a world away) from Washington, D.C., in a state with a Republican-controlled legislature and GOP governor, and where several anti-LGBT bills have been proposed.

“Legislators seem bent on making us invisible in every way possible and preventing any state-level recognition of our relationships,” Batts says. “Life is not easy for LGBT people in the South, especially our youth and transgender brothers and sisters. The needs are great and the resources very limited.”

With 2.7 million Facebook users changing their profile photos to equal signs in solidarity with the Supreme Court plaintiffs and Democratic elected officials (and a handful of Republicans) in endorsing marriage equality, the feeling of gay rights going mainstream was palpable this spring. But marriage equality doesn’t necessarily feel inevitable in the South, and the ability to wed the person you love is just one of many rights LGBT folks in the South are denied. Save for Kentucky, which only protects gay and transgender people who are employed by the state, D.C., and Maryland, workers can be fired for being LGBT in every state south of the Mason-Dixon line. Even though the 2010 Census found that same-sex couples in Southern states are more likely to be raising children than their northeastern and West Coast counterparts, they have almost zero defenses against housing discrimination unless they live in big cities like Atlanta or New Orleans.

The battles against LGBT people continue to be waged quietly in the South. Alabama’s current school curriculum requires teachers to instruct students that homosexuality is an “unacceptable, criminal lifestyle,” according to the Human Rights Campaign. The state’s only out lawmaker, Rep. Patricia Todd, a Birmingham Democrat, has introduced a bill to repeal the mandate.

“I’m working to delete the homophobic language in our state health curriculum and even have Republican support,” Todd says. “It sure helps to have an openly gay [person] in the legislature.”

Like Batts in Tennessee, Todd says marriage equality is on a back burner at best in her state: “In Alabama we will only achieve marriage equity through the court system, like [all] civil rights.”

The same-sex marriage debate has remained civil in Alabama, Todd admits. While she doesn’t envision gay weddings in Mobile or Montgomery happening soon, things are changing.

Batts strikes a similarly optimistic tone when looking toward the future, and with good reason. In his state, a bill that would have allowed counseling and social work students to opt out of working with LGBT clients (because homosexuality or transgenderism offended their religious beliefs) died in the legislature, as did the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which would have prevented teachers from mentioning homosexuality in grade school and junior high classes.

Nashville and Memphis both have ordinances protecting city workers from anti-LGBT discrimination, and residents of another Tennessee city, Chattanooga, elected a gay man to the City Council in March.

“We know that equality is not coming soon for us,” Batts says. “In the South, equality seems to take much longer than it should. We’ve learned to be patient, and we see victory coming.”

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