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Local activists in Nebraska say the Human Rights Campaign had for years been a long-distance ally. But as equality spreads to more places, its field organizers are reaching the front lines in Nebraska and other places in the middle of the country.
Drew Heckman, the HRC's first full-time field organizer in Nebraska, often cries in the town hall meetings they host. "After traveling around the state," Heckman said, "I can't look at the statistics for Nebraska without seeing a face now."
In Nebraska City, an hour's drive from where Brandon Teena was murdered, a lesbian told of being beaten up in high school and navigating her community with lingering fear.
In Omaha, a young gay man described being punched while walking down the street for no other reason than "looking particularly gay."
In Scottsbluff, residents shared how they felt "trapped between Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena."
Their stories are what's behind HRC's October online survey of 670 Nebraska LGBT residents, a majority of whom said they suffer some form of discrimination. More than half, 57 percent, reported experiencing harassment in public places, and 41 percent reported harassment in the workplace. Forty-one percent of respondents experienced harassment in school, most frequently in high school.
HRC's efforts in Nebraska are part of an organizational push to address the challenges of the LGBT community in states largely untouched by significant advances in LGBT rights across the country. HRC plans to place a field organizer in Wyoming, for example, and is already working more closely in the South.
Marriage equality in Nebraska is still out of reach. This month the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted a lower court's ruling to end the state's ban on marriage for same-sex couples. With HRC's efforts on the ground, over 100 Nebraska businesses have signed onto a pledge to support equality in the workplace.
Pat Tetreault, director of the LGBTQA Resource Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says HRC in Nebraska has already made advances. Tetreault, a lesbian activist in Nebraska for more than 20 years, cites the results of HRC's survey of LGBT residents as invaluable to her work. "We've had an ongoing relationship with them for years, but it's been hard to maintain a consistent connection there," Tetreault said. "Having a field organizer in the state helps you maintain that connection, and the national support makes a big difference."
For Nebraska and other similarly situated states, any progress on marriage equality often takes place outside of law-making and instead via institutions and businesses -- and even there LGBT rights and protections remain weak or virtually nonexistent. The Movement Advancement Project, a Denver-based think tank tracking LGBT rights, characterizes Nebraska as one of the 14 remaining "low equality" states lacking both marriage equality and statewide non-discrimination laws on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Only one Nebraska municipality -- Omaha -- has an ordinance banning employment discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity. Two other Nebraska cities -- Grand Island and Lincoln -- have protections based on sexual orientation alone for residents and city workers, respectively.
"When I was at the legislature listening to a committee hearing last year, I was really taken off guard to hear state senators saying being gay is a choice," Heckman said. "It was a moment for me where I realized how much education we have to do."
Recent statewide polling demonstrates that Nebraskans' attitudes differ from the rest of the nation, with a December statewide poll by the Omaha World-Herald showing 54 percent of Nebraskans opposing marriage rights for same-sex couples. The trend in national polls shows the opposite, with a majority of Americans supportive of marriage equality since 2012, according to Gallup.
A native of Omaha, Heckman is no stranger to organizing in the state where he grew up. While pursuing a bachelor's degree halfway across the country at Brown University, he started the Queer Nebraska Youth Network in 2010 and has developed relationships with other gay rights advocates on the ground.
And despite the challenging terrain, Heckman said HRC Nebraska is encouraged by the strength of the LGBT community across the state, even in rural areas, where some openly LGBT residents own businesses, are friends with city leaders, and "beloved" in their communities and churches.
Longtime LGBT advocacy organizations are also receptive to HRC's investment in the state. "To be able to devote resources to a state like Nebraska instead of states with bigger populations is an important thing to do," said Jordan Delmundo, director of development and Policy for the Nebraska AIDS Project.
Further, with Heckman's groundwork, HRC Nebraska's first initiatives in the state -- building connections with businesses, faith leaders, and elected officials -- are beginning to bear fruit. When three Nebraska state senators introduced bills in January to prohibit employment discrimination, permit foster parenting, and allow second-parent adoption, Heckman helped bring supportive businesses to the table, including food giant ConAgra and singer-songwriter Conor Oberst's Saddle Creek Records label.
With the U.S. Supreme Court expected to soon weigh in on the constitutionality of state bans on marriage for same-sex couples, Heckman sensed some LGBT Nebraska residents consider HRC late to the game. Still, Heckman anticipates more work ahead on the state and municipal level, and in the business community, to secure equal rights for LGBT Nebraskans at work and elsewhere even if the U.S. Supreme Court cements the road to formal marriage equality in the spring.
"HRC Nebraska is not a one-year campaign or a two-year campaign," Heckman said. "We're here until we don't need to be here anymore."
This report was made possible by the Heartland Project, aimed at broadening news coverage of Nebraska's communities of color, as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. The project, funded by the Ford Foundation, is a collaboration of the Asian American Journalists Association and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.