LGBT people living in the South understand it's often hostile territory. A litany of antigay laws give the impression that "southern hospitality" does not extend to everyone. But progress need not be stagnant, according to the Campaign for Southern Equality's We Do Campaign, which concluded its latest phase in January.
Since October 2011, the campaign has sent 76 same-sex couples into their hometown county clerk's offices to request marriage licenses. In North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia, every couple was denied. CSE documented the peaceful but sometimes awkward interactions to put a face on the harm caused by discriminatory laws.
"I think it's one of the most exciting grassroots campaigns in the U.S. right now," says longtime LGBT activist David Mixner. "It's taking enormous courage in small towns throughout the South to confront one's peers in the community and demand equality."
That's exactly what Matt Griffin and Raymie Wolfe did January 9 in Morristown, Tenn. Together for seven years, they live on a farm that has been in Wolfe's family for three generations. When they approached the counter, the county clerk politely informed them that Tennessee law prevented her from issuing a marriage license to two men. For his part, Wolfe spoke fondly of his parents' happy 40-year marriage and about how his and Griffin's relationship is more similar to it than not.
"We know these things to be self-evident," Wolfe told the clerk. "But when I do call him my husband, that is a lie."
Critics argue that the We Do Campaign wasted limited resources fighting an "unwinnable" battle in states with deeply entrenched homophobia. Indeed, each of the states included in the campaign has a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, approved by voters by majorities between 61% and 86%. But We Do participants argue the that South is ready for this type of nonviolent activism aimed at changing hearts and minds.
"It takes gay people rising up and demanding equality," says Wolfe, "and demanding fairness from their lawmakers, in their own communities, and in their own backyards so that we are seen, and heard, and counted everywhere."