Although the conservative South has long been a difficult place for gay rights activism, panelists attending the Louisiana Queer Conference at LSU Saturday said progress is being made and the region will increasingly be a focus for organizing.
Organizing the LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer — movement in the South has been a challenge compared to the North, where activists are better funded, said Michael Beyer, co-coordinator of the conference and a junior in political science at LSU.
Still, Beyer said, progress is being made on issues like same-sex marriage even in some Southern states. The 37 states in which courts have made rulings allowing same-sex marriage include South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida and, most recently, Alabama.
“The state of the movement is certainly strong as far as the courts go in recognizing the full dignity of LGBTQ as far as marriage,” Beyer said. “But the legislatures haven’t caught up.”
Neither has the Baton Rouge Metro Council, he said, which last August rejected a proposed local law to ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Some 235 people registered for the conference, the fifth year it’s been held at LSU. The theme this year was “Bold Not Broken: Queer Resilience in the South.”
The keynote speaker at Saturday’s conference, Jen Jones, of Equality North Carolina, said in an interview that many local issues affect LGBTQ people, such as access to health care, housing and jobs — things that affect anyone not part of the traditional Southern white male establishment.
Southern activists also must consider religion when organizing, she said.
“It’s a more polarizing experience here in the South where faith is so central to every conversation,” Jones said. “With that said, the South has a strong history of resilience and perseverance in the social justice movement.”
Jones points to the 1960s civil rights movement in the South as a blueprint for today’s LGBTQ movement to follow. People should not get angry about the lack of progress in the South but instead be willing to share their experiences to garner support, she said.
S. Mandisa Moore-O’Neal, an attorney involved in the Women’s Health and Justice Initiative the INCITE! National Organizing Collective, said issues like employment and housing protections for gay people must be framed carefully, especially when trying to reach black people.
“If I’m a black church in the poorest part of New Orleans, and the face of LGBT issues is white people at a time when I know that my community is being gentrified by mostly white do-gooders, I’m not going to be in favor of what’s read as an LGBT issue, because it gets read as, ‘Y’all have been pushing our people around for 200 years,’ ” she said.
Even within LGBTQ organizations, there are problems with inclusiveness, panelists said. For years, transgender people were “very unwelcome in many places,” said Courtney Sharp, a member of PFLAG New Orleans.
Although that resistance has lessened, it still exists, even in gay rights organizations, said Dorian Alexander, chairman of the Louisiana AIDS Advocacy Network.
“There’s a big G, there’s a nice-sized L, a B, there’s a small T,” Alexander said of the GLBT acronym. “The B, to me, means they’re going to throw (bisexuals) under the bus. It’s a challenge to the folks in this room to work harder at being more aware.”
Beyer said young people are helping make changes with new ideas and the use of social media to reach large audiences. While Southern states have taken only incremental steps toward gay rights, national organizations are beginning to take notice of activism in the region.
“Some are now describing the South as a new frontier,” he said.