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Forget blue.
Think red

Forget blue.
Think red

Openshaw

In an open letter to the leaders of LGBT organizations, a Birmingham, Ala., resident urges a new strategy for equality: Remember the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and take the fight to the places that most need to be educated--the South and the Midwest

The movement to gain equal rights for gay men, lesbian, bisexuals, and transgender people in this country has slowed to a crawl. In part it's been slowed by the effectiveness of our opponents in framing the issues to our disadvantage, but it's also hampered by our own lack of vision in developing strategies relevant to current times.

Occasional progress is noted, and appreciated: a watered-down hate crimes bill in one state; the formation of a gay-straight alliance at a high school in another. But a reality check shows us that in "Middle America"--that hallowed spot of ground in Kansas that the media claims represents all of conservative America (or red-state America)--antigay measures have a much greater chance of passing in state legislatures and local councils than do their pro-equality counterparts. To see this, one need only look at the number of anti-marriage amendments being proposed and passed across the nation compared with the number of states recognizing marriage equality or civil unions.

Culturally GLBT themes can be winners. The eight-year run of Will & Grace, the buzz about GLBT-themed movies during the recent awards season, and the musical contributions of country music icons Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris all show that GLBT acceptance in the country is increasing. Despite what right-wing pundits are saying and CNN is reporting, even in Middle America, Brokeback Mountain was a success, having played to packed movie houses of gays and straights and heterosexual couples and gray-haired ladies.

As I write this Brokeback is still in play even here in Birmingham, Ala., after showing for several weeks. I am sure that the local theaters, in business to make money, would not hold this or any other movie over week after week if people were not continuing to go see it. Dolly Parton, a longtime vocal supporter of the GLBT community, performed at a sold-out concert here recently. The fact that a heart-wrenching love story involves two men or that a country music legend supports our community is OK in Middle America.

So what does it mean that cultural phenomena, with capitalist roots to say the least, can have a greater effect in promoting equality than political advocacy? For the leaders of GLBT advocacy groups it means they need to rethink their strategies.

It is time for a paradigm shift in the way the fight for equality is approached. For years these groups have concentrated their efforts in obtaining certain rights in progressive, blue states, where they say they have the best chance of getting legislation passed or victories in the courts. While every pro-equality bill that passes is appreciated, it is time to rethink that approach.

Prior to Lawrence v. Texas--the Supreme Court case that overturned the Texas sodomy law and thus made the remaining sodomy laws across the country invalid--this was a good strategy, because the antigay groups could always use the argument that same-sex activity was illegal to win court cases or defeat legislation. That being the case, it would have been useless, and a waste of valuable resources, to bring the fight for equal rights to the red states. But once same-sex relationships were declared legal, this no longer made sense.

Here in the South, in Birmingham, Ala., every year during the month of February we celebrate Black History Month, and every year I learn a little more about the events that shaped this city's (and nation's) history and the people who made it happen. One of them was Coretta Scott King, whom we recently lost--not only a great civil rights leader but a strong supporter of GLBT rights in the black community. Many in the African-American community see no similarity in the civil rights movement and the current gay rights movement. But Martin Luther King Jr. himself said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and his widow used this quote often in her fight for GLBT rights.

But it is not whether the two movements are similar or dissimilar that is important. Rather, the civil rights successes of the '60s are what we should be focusing on to develop our own strategies for the 21st century. During the 1950s and '60s, civil rights leaders realized the importance of bringing the fight for equality to the places where the inequality was the greatest: Cities like Birmingham, Selma, and Little Rock; states like Mississippi and South Carolina, where the ideals of equal treatment for blacks were at great odds with the beliefs of the political leaders and the conservative populace.

The important part of this is that money and workers came to the Southern states from elsewhere. They came in the form of Freedom Riders and others, many of whom were white and/or Jewish and from the more wealthy Northern states where blacks were already being treated with greater equality. They took time away from their work, their education, their families, and risked their very lives (and in some cases lost them) to assist in the fight for civil rights.

The lesson to be learned can be summed up in two words: It worked.

The same strategy could work for the GLBT fight for equality as well. This does not mean we should stop the work being done in the blue states where GLBT persons enjoy greater acceptance already, but it does mean that the focus should be shifted to the states where we have the most to gain, rather than the states that put up the least resistance.

Suggestions: Provide more assistance in getting progressive candidates elected. Hold meetings and conferences and events in Arkansas or Alabama rather than in California or New York. When you bring an event to the South, don't hold it in Atlanta or Fort Lauderdale; instead go to Jackson, Miss., or Charleston, S.C., for example. Then encourage those attending to travel to these places and tell them the importance of doing so and of making their presence known when they do. It is no more difficult to travel to a midsize city in the South than it is to travel to New York City or Chicago, and once there, hey, gays make the party anyway, so lack of entertainment is not excuse.

By doing this, several things will occur. Conservatives will see that the progressive movement for GLBT equality is truly a national movement that is not afraid to bring its people to events and communities in Middle America. GLBT people living in red Southern states will realize that advocacy groups care about them and will include them in the fight, rather than just receiving pleas for money (to be spent elsewhere) in the mail every few weeks. Middle America will learn that GLBT people are not a threat--not to marriage, not to children, not to family values, and not to religion.

In addition, GLBT visitors and straight allies who come with them (21st-century freedom fighters) will learn that the South and Midwest are not full of hateful, bigoted, backward hillbillies and rednecks (as we are often called by "coastal" gays)--rather, friendly folks of which the straights need to be educated and the gays need encouragement. In this regard the "Southophobia" demonstrated by so many East Coast and West Coast gays will diminish, and our own community will become more inclusive and more united.

What I'm proposing is indeed a paradigm shift in the way the equal rights movement is carried out. Such changes will require lots of thought and study. I am not a leader in any GLBT organization, and this suggestion comes from no one but myself. I know that for more than a decade we here in Birmingham and elsewhere in Middle America have screamed at times for help and have been expected to be satisfied with an occasional visit from a director or a promise that progress is being made (elsewhere).

To the leaders of our major GLBT organizations, I say: You are the ones who can do this. You who have the resources and the manpower and womanpower, who can plan strategies that will be inclusive of the whole country, and who can bring the fight for equality to the places where inequality is greatest. It worked for the Freedom Riders and the "northern liberals" (as they were called) who helped bring voting rights and desegregation to the South, and at the same time, civil rights across the county.

To honor the legacy of Coretta Scott King, the same strategies should be used to gain equal rights for the GLBT community.

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Joe Openshaw