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The Secret Weapon Against the South's Assault on LGBT Rights

The Secret Weapon Against the South's Assault on LGBT Rights

Southern Equality

A scrappy young organization called the Campaign for Southern Equality is beating back the intolerance spewing from the nation's most conservative region.

It often feels like the Confederacy won the Civil War, at least when it comes to LGBT people and the South. So divided is the region from the rest of the country when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity rights, a map of the legal differences looks like something from the days of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.

The situation on the ground can seem hopeless, especially since national LGBT organizations have often felt the same way, previously devoting scant resources below the Mason-Dixon line. The feeling of LGBT Southerners being left to fend for themselves was the impetus for the Asheville, N.C.-based Campaign for Southern Equality, a scrappy five-year-old organization that's been racking up impressive wins, even in an environment that feels increasingly hostile to queer rights.

"When we first started working on some of the early ideas that led to CSE, the South was entirely written off by the national movement," says the organization's executive director, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. "There was, of course, incredible work on the ground. But if you were to pose the question, 'What's the pathway to winning marriage equality in the South?' the answer would be 'There is none, or wait 30 years.'"

Beach-Ferrara, a minister in the United Church of Christ and a Tar Heel State native, says the South was receiving less than 5 percent of LGBT-related funding in the country-- ironic, since the area was arguably most in dire need of assistance.

That fact has become embarrassingly obvious this year, with Mississippi passing the nation's strictest "religious freedom" bill in the nation, allowing businesses to deny services to same-sex couples or transgender people if their presence conflicts with their sincerely held beliefs. Then Tennessee passed a law allowing mental health professionals to turn away potential patients because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Of course, there's also House Bill 2, the law passed in the Campaign for Southern Equality's home state, which overturned Charlotte's LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance, banned similar protections throughout the state, made it impossible for individuals to sue in state courts for discrimination, and mandated that transgender people use the restrooms in government buildings that correspond with their birth certificate instead of their gender identity.

Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Beyonce condemned the anti-LGBT law, millions of dollars' worth of convention and event business withdrew from the state, and the Department of Justice has threatened the state with the loss of billions in federal education funding, but antigay and anti-trans state officials are still digging in their heels.

"We're still very much in the throes of fighting that bill," Beach-Ferrara says. "[HB 2] is the worst of what politics can be."

Beach-Ferrara is always quick to counter the bad news with the good, bringing up the fact that Georgia and South Carolina declined to advance proposed anti-LGBT legislation. Even Oxford, Ala., repealed an anti-trans "bathroom law" just a week after passing it.

Her group was also directly responsible for helping banish the nation's last ban on adoption by same-sex couples, which formally entered history's dustbin this week. Its lawsuit, filed along with the Family Equality Council and four same-sex couples, brought down Mississippi's prohibition on such couples adopting children, a ban that state officials tried to maintain even after the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act and legalized marriage equality nationwide.

The resistance to LGBT rights from Southern politicians -- like the governors of Mississippi and North Carolina -- is a result of a power imbalance, Beach-Ferrara says, without mentioning specific political parties.

"This deep-seated animus is overrepresented in our legislatures and it misrepresents the true sentiments [of Southerners]," she says.

Things are far from perfect on the ground, Beach-Ferrara notes, but these proposed and passed bills make the situation look worse to people outside the South and the U.S. than it really is. Citing a Pride celebration organized in Hattiesburg, Miss., and attended by the small city's mayor, Beach-Ferrara says grassroots organizing -- like the kind her group helps foster -- is yielding results.

"As recently as a couple years ago, there was zero public conversation in a state like Mississippi about LGBT lives -- zero," she says. "Now it's part of the public dialogue. We do lag behind other parts of the country in terms of overall support, but the trend lines are there in the polling."

The Campaign for Southern Equality's Hometown Organizing Project provides local organizations with funding, training, and leadership development opportunities so more tiny towns can hold Pride events and local gay groups can host booths at fairs or parades. These small groups are "very much on the front lines of starting conversations in communities where there's never been any before," Beach-Ferrara says.

Her organization, with an annual budget of around $320,000, also works to directly improve daily lives of queer Southerners. It hosts an ongoing series of free clinics that help people know and protect their rights. A recent employment seminar helped trans men and women develop skills for the workplace; a job fair on site hooked up prospective employees with LGBT-friendly businesses.

"There are extraordinary and ubiquitous needs across the South for folks to have access to legal services, health care, and other services that are taken for granted [in other places]," Beach-Ferrara says, implying how much easier it is for people on the coasts and in big cities to obtain LGBT-specific assistance.

The group sees its mission as achieving both legal and lived equality for LGBT Southerners. Marriage equality is great, but it doesn't change how frightening it remains for same-sex couples to hold hands in almost any place in the South. The current legislative assault on LGBT Southerners isn't a temporary reaction to marriage equality, Beach-Ferrara says, but the "latest iteration of an extremist perspective held by smaller and smaller numbers." In the South, though, that fear and hate is "deeply embedded in the political and cultural landscape," she says, but as in the rest of the country, its grip is loosening.

The slowly changing environment is partly why people like Beach-Ferrara aren't ready to decamp to San Francisco or Chicago.

"We stay because this is our home and we love it here," she says, adding that heading to a more hospitable place would leave behind the most vulnerable -- people living in poverty, trans people of color, elders.

"Folks know that leaving isn't the solution," she says. "Leaving isn't how we change the reality of what it means to be LGBT in the South."

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