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How to Win LGBTQ Equality in the South

Photo by Joey Kyber on Unsplash

Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of the Campaign for Southern Equality is working hard to replicate victories in Virginia and North Carolina.

In a time when COVID-19 has brought such heartbreak to so many and has so disrupted the normal routines of life, it can be hard to yank our attention from the moment we are in.

But something truly significant has taken place in Virginia this month. The politics of the state's legislature finally caught up with the values of the state's people as a law ensuring comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people went into effect. Years and years of tenacious and hopeful work went into this historic bipartisan LGBTQ victory in Virginia -- the first statewide win for a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill in the South.

Winning anywhere in the South matters for the LGBTQ people who are actually impacted by the passage of a law, but it also ripples across the region's political and cultural climate, and it changes the story: Now, it is possible to pass nondiscrimination legislation here.

The South demands a multipronged strategy. There are states where it will take too long to win on the state level, and that's why we must push hard for federal legislation, the most effective way to deliver protections to every corner of the South.

In many Southern states, legislatures remain a bastion of anti-LGBTQ sentiment -- just witness the recent cluster of bills targeting transgender youth that made headlines this year in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, and more. Far-right conservatives continue to be overrepresented in Southern legislatures, and their positions are increasingly out of sync with the growing majority that supports LGBTQ rights.

Look at North Carolina's efforts to pass a bill protecting young people from anti-LGBTQ "conversion therapy," led by the Campaign for Southern Equality and Equality NC. A 2019 poll found that 87 percent of Republicans and a similarly high percentage of Democrats supported a ban on this discredited practice of licensed mental health professionals trying to shame LGBTQ youth into changing their sexual orientation or gender identity. Supermajority bipartisan support and cosponsorship from 30 legislators should ensure a political win. But North Carolina has been ground zero for political highjinks related to gerrymandering in the past decade, and we've also seen the passage of three anti-LGBTQ laws since 2015.

So the bill hasn't yet moved out of committee -- it was held up without even a hearing because Republican leadership of the North Carolina General Assembly wanted it defeated. Specifically, a small group of powerful legislators who were doubling down on a view held by just the 13 percent of Republicans who opposed banning "conversion therapy."

Stories like this are a salient reminder that LGBTQ Southerners continue to meet every formal definition of political powerlessness. Indeed, it is a particular variety of political powerlessness when a minority group has the support of an overwhelming majority of the public but still can't achieve the basic threshold of equal protection under the law because a small group of politically powerful politicians are systematically blocking natural progress.

In the absence of swift legislative action in North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper signed an executive order banning public funding for "conversion therapy," making North Carolina the first in the South to take statewide action on this issue. When the legislative process proves intractable, we must advocate for executive and administrative actions -- in the LGBTQ South you must use every tool available to achieve legal progress.

Deploying both real-time and long-game organizing strategies is critical in every single Southern state. But this approach creates a patchwork of progress rather than a blanket of protections. That's why we need to simultaneously focus on the passage of federal legislation like the Equality Act, which passed in the House of Representatives but is currently stalled in the Senate.

People are hurting and at risk, and this urgency must drive our politics.

When a 12-year-old tells you he's routinely called an antigay slur at school and no one intervenes, when a person is fired from their job because they have come out as transgender, when a teenager completes suicide because of the isolation they feel, you begin to understand the magnitude of the pain in our community. And you also know the strength and resilience that reside within us -- the bravery of that 12-year-old who shows up to school every single day, the persistence of the woman who begins looking for a new job, the love that grieving friends share as they mourn a loss.

More than one-third of all LGBTQ Americans live in the South. This is our home, and we'll continue to fight for and celebrate progress like this victory in Virginia. Indeed, as millions of Americans face unemployment and grave health and financial challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, nondiscrimination protections in the workplace, healthcare settings, and housing are more essential than ever.

We are ultimately hopeful about what's possible in the South. But we simply cannot wait for every state legislature to catch up with the people of the South.

Every poll you can find and countless stories I could share, from the mountains of North Carolina to the Gulf Coast of Missisissipi, demonstrate that the people of the South are ready for federal LGBTQ protections. The next step is to move from "ready for" to "calling for" and "demanding."

This is what it will take to compel Congress to do its job and pass clear and comprehensive protections from anti-LGBTQ discrimination. It's time that no one -- not in the South or in any other region -- is left vulnerable to discrimination.

Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is the Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. She is a minister in the United Church of Christ and serves as a County Commissioner in Buncombe County, NC.

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Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara