The push for equality in conservative USA
By Adam Polaski
In many parts of the United States, two men can hold hands without attracting much attention, a rainbow bumper sticker won’t earn any car vandalism and a local public figure makes an “In Gets Better” video every other week. But in much of the country, the situation for members of the LGBT community is far different. On a legislative level, same-sex marriage is just one item on a long list of rights not yet afforded to sexual minorities—a list that foremost includes the right to job security. In 29 states, employers who disapprove of employees’ sexual orientation can fire employees without legal ramifications.
Culturally, the intolerance is less concrete but more pervasive. Many gays and lesbians feel that coming out to family or community members could open the floodgates of prejudice and vitriol, expose a lack of any support system and, in extreme cases, jeopardize their lives.
This is the plight of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in the deeply conservative parts of the United States—namely, the Southern “Bible Belt” and the Midwest, regions highly influenced by religion.
As Strong as the Weakest Link
But the unwelcoming environment of a large portion of this region does not mean that all hope for those citizens is lost. That mindset, according to Change.org writer Abbie Kopf, is a roadblock to equality (Listen).
“Anytime there’s a story about something horrible happening in a red state, [some gay rights proponents] will say, ‘Just forget about that state,’ and that is the exact wrong argument that you could have,” Kopf said. “They need to change their paradigm to see these states as the most important in the gay rights battle because if we can’t turn around every single mind in this country, we’ll never be truly equal.”
Instead of condemning overtly conservative states, Kopf continued, activists should seek out the often smaller, quieter gay rights movement growing in those parts of the country.
After all, it’s been proven time after time that some of the most defining triumphs of the LGBT rights movements occur on a statewide scale: Sexual orientation-inclusive hate crimes legislation was approved in a majority of the states before being passed federally, and issues like same-sex marriage and employee non-discrimination acts are currently being seriously considered primarily at the state level.
Stephanie Perkins, the deputy director of PROMO, an LGBT organization in Missouri, highlighted the importance of contributing to grassroots, local movements (Listen). “Federal work is very, very, very important, but I want people to be involved in their state,” she said. “You’re already in your state, and you can work with the organizations there to do so much good that really translates into federal work.”
Changing Opinions, Stimulating Actions
There certainly isn’t an absence of counter-cultured social liberalism in many anti-gay areas of the country. From Texas to Alabama to Kentucky, LGBT organizations are gaining greater confidence each day, bolstering their visibility and continuing to earn supporters.
For instance, the Center for Artistic Revolution, the most active statewide LGBT-centric organization in Arkansas, has been steadily growing. The group works to defray school bullying that targets actual or perceived LGBT students—they led the charge for the resignation of Clint McCance, the school board member who drew significant attention in October with his anti-gay tirade on Facebook that encouraged “fags” to commit suicide. Despite some legislative setbacks, like a 2008 ballot initiative that banned all unmarried couples in the state from adopting or fostering children, CAR has seen an increased awareness of the LGBT community in the past few years.
The University of Arkansas’ 2010 statewide poll indicates some progress. This year, for the first time, a majority of respondents did not agree with the statement, “There should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.” Forty-eight percent of respondents agreed with that statement, as opposed to 54 percent in 2009.
However, Randi Romo, co-founder and director of CAR, said the ideology behind those poll numbers has yet to be demonstrated in a tangible way (Listen). In this year’s midterm elections for the House of Representatives, the Democratic LGBT ally Joyce Elliott lost the race in the second district to Republican Tim Griffin, who had been linked to voter-caging and corruption. Romo said, “They’d rather vote for someone who’s a known crook than someone who’s a black woman and a known LGBTQ supporter.” She added, “There’s still a lot of discrimination that happens in the state—people lose their jobs, they get refused housing, public accommodations. It’s pretty systematic around here.”
It’s the Network
In the LGBT movement in the South and Midwest, as with any social movement, it’s important for advocates to stay connected, highlighting each other’s successes (and learning from each other’s failures) in order to be most effective in advancing the rights of LGBT people. The relatively few LGBT rights organizations in Arkansas often partner together in order to convey the diverse range of voices in the equality movement.
The most obvious examples of this networked movement are seen in the pride parades organized across the state. The Northwest Arkansas Pride Parade, hosted every summer since 2007 in one of the most conservative regions of the state, brings a broad array of LGBT rights groups to march together. Public pride events like these are essential, according to the parade committee’s president, Joney Harper (Listen).
“It brings awareness that there is a GLBT community in Northwest Arkansas, and basically [it says], ‘We’re here,’” Harper said. “We break a lot of myths in Northwest Arkansas. … Right now we deal with the radical right vision of what GLBT people are like and show them the real deal.”
Baby steps toward true equality is the main trend in much of the South and Midwest. In Manhattan, a small, comparatively liberal college town in Kansas, the Flint Hills Human Rights Project is one organization working bit by bit to succeed. This fall, the group focused its efforts on encouraging the community to support a proposed ordinance that would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in the city’s human rights ordinance. On Dec. 7, the ordinance advanced to a second reading, which will take place in January. If it is passed, the ordinance would make Manhattan the second municipality in Kansas to have sexual orientation as a protected class and the first to include gender identity (Updated since original publication).
A week before the vote on the ordinance, Jonathan Mertz, chair of the FHHRP, reflected on the significance of the proposed ordinance (Listen), saying, “With some of the [local] LGBT kids, they want to go to a place where they feel safe, and, unfortunately, some of them don’t here. The ordinance cannot change attitudes, and we know that, but it would be a statement of support, and we see it as a preventative measure in that hopefully it will prevent discrimination from happening.”
It’s an uphill battle, but advocates insist that without groups like these, the countermovement wouldn’t exist at all, and LGBTs would be in a far worse situation.
Mertz stressed the importance of being involved in the push for equality: Progress, he said, needs to be instigated. “Sitting at home and bitching about it might make you feel better, but it doesn’t do anything,” he said. “People need to be active within their community, no matter where they are.”
Romo also explained why devoted LGBT populations in the red states are essential: “We have to stay and fight. … We are poised to make significant shifts, and we already see a climate shift happening. Sometimes, it feels like one step forward and two back, but nevertheless, there are a lot of forward steps that, when I came here seven years ago, didn’t exist. You cannot change culture and climate and policy if you’re not there to help implement the change.”
For Harper, too, abandoning the cause is not an option. “You can’t change a color unless you add more of another color,” she said. “The only way they’re going to change the red into a blue—or even a pink—is to add more progressive people who are actually going to speak up. The more people are aware, the more the color will start changing.”
Adam Polaski is a junior journalism major who would love to introduce R to the rest of OYGBIV. E-mail him at email@example.com.
This piece has been updated since its original publication to reflect errors regarding the Flint Hills Human Rights Project. The ordinance that the organization supported did not pass, as originally reported, but advanced to a second reading, which will take place in January (see comments).
(Music in multimedia presentation by Mark Sylvester, used with permission from Mark Sylvester.)
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