Hey Y'all—the Fight for LGBT Rights Is Coming to the Deep South

In the push for equality, a gay rights group is opening brick-and-mortar facilities in the Heart of Dixie—and Mississippi and Arkansas too.

Arkansans participate in the Gay Rights March on April 25, 1993, in Washington, D.C. (Editor's note: This is one of the few pictures we could find involving gay rights and the Deep South.)

(Photo: Porter Gifford/Liaison)

Apr 29, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

As gay marriage has gained approval in an increasing number of states, and a multitude of LGBT lawsuits have made it to the high courts, the next battleground for gay rights is in largely uncharted territory: the Deep South.

The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights group in the country, says it is setting up permanent shop in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama—three states where gay marriage is prohibited by the local constitution and where LGBT residents don't have legal discrimination protections. HRC has had a national presence in the South for decades, but Project One America creates a local one.

"It really is a game changer in that this isn't a fly-by-night operation; this is really establishing roots in these communities and not just going after quick, simple wins," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, HRC communications director.

These states also lack "fully resourced and staffed" local LGBT campaigns, unlike many of their neighbors, including Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina.

With a three-year budget of $8.5 million, HRC plans to open brick-and-mortar headquarters in each of the three states, with 20 employees divided between the offices. That financial commitment alone puts Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi into new territory because these states have traditionally received minimal grant funding for LGBT issues. Most of the hefty contributions head to big cities, such as New York and San Francisco, or such states as Washington and Oregon.

Between 2011 and 2012, Arkansas received $54,000 in grant funding toward LGBTQ issues, compared with neighboring Missouri's more than $515,000 and Oklahoma's approximately $155,000, according to a report from Funders for LGBTQ Issues.

Cole-Schwartz said that often LGBT efforts are focused on passing a specific law or ordinance, but HRC's Project One will take a more "holistic" approach to creating societal change in these communities. To that end, HRC used a national polling firm to research the experiences of LGBT residents in the three states selected.

The study ran over the course of nearly two months in 2014. It found that almost 65 percent of LGBT individuals reported being victims of verbal abuse, and about 20 percent reported being victims of physical violence because of their identity. What HRC found most notable was that about one-quarter of all LGBT people raising kids in these states have no legal relationship to their children.

"Mississippi has the single highest percentage of gay and lesbian couples raising children of any state in the country, for instance, but these parents are making do without essential legal protections or inclusion in their community,” said Project One leader Brad Clark in a statement.

So HRC Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi will start with basic legislative action to help establish LGBT equality, said Cole-Schwartz. Local HRC branches will push for a range of nondiscrimination ordinances in the housing market and the workplace, which would protect LGBT individuals from discrimination based on their sexual identity or orientation.

These protective orders can also be enacted for "public accommodations"; restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, and any other business open to the public would be barred from discriminating against LGBT customers.

Although Project One has been launched with nine goals in mind, Cole-Schwartz said HRC expects these to change and shift as it becomes better versed in each community.

"Gaining enduring legal protections is a critical goal. But just as we've seen in our work around the country and other campaigns, there's lots of ways to improve the lives of LGBT people," said Cole-Schwartz.

In addition to functioning as a political lobbying firm, HRC focuses on social and institutional change by working with corporations to institute nondiscrimination policies and domestic partner benefits for gay employees.

Over the next month or so, HRC will be scouting for its new office space and employees. It hopes to hire people who live and work in the area and who have a cultural awareness of and sensitivity to these places, said Cole-Schwartz.