[Ed. Note — In our Feb. 15-28 print edition, we published an article exploring the presence of southern organizers and focus on southern activism at the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change conference in Atlanta in January. Joshua Burford’s commentary below explores a different perspective from the same conference, where he encountered significant absence or lack of understanding for southern and rural organizing and communities.]
At the end of January I attended the Creating Change conference in Atlanta organized by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. This conference is the largest of its kind in the U.S. and brought together 3,300 LGBTQ professionals for four days of sharing ideas about the current state of affairs for the queer community. What I discovered at the conference is that the gap between people working nationally and individuals working in the South is greater than I had feared.
Everywhere at the conference was the language of inclusion; inclusion of different racial voices, inclusion of the trans community and the constant reassurance that the work being done in New York and D.C. will soon benefit the entire community. And, yet, everywhere I looked there was an absence of southern voices and opinions. Rea Carey, the director of the Task Force, gave a moving speech about the direction our movement is headed. Between the lines of her reassurance about the work being accomplished were examples set in the North. The underlying message was something akin to “once we get all the other queers sorted out, perhaps we can turn some attention to the South.” The utter lack of recognition for southern victories and southern progressive organizing was so stark in her speech that it was almost unbearable to listen to.
I can’t decide if the omission of the South comes from a place of ignorance or of blindness to the complexity of queer community experience. I overheard so many people from across the country make comments about “racists” in the South and how “sorry” they felt for us having to live here. Is this really okay with us? Are we fine with this because we think it’s true, or because we have no notion of how to address it? There are certainly racist people in the South, but also many other places. We give lip service to the “diversity” of our community, but the stereotype is that functional queer community can only exist in the supposed “liberal” meccas of liberal states. This was typified in a conversation between a lesbian mother and a panelist discussing LGBTQ issues and the law. The audience member asked about a matter related to adoption and the panelist responded with “Well you should go down to your local LGBT community center for help.” The audience member responded with, “I live in Wyoming,” to which the panelist had no response.
There used to be places where we could celebrate our unique lives and queer experiences and these places tried very hard to make sure that they were inclusive and rejected the very hierarchies that seek to oppress us. Now, we have replaced the radical with a new hierarchy that raises up “celebrities” whose only claim to this title exists in their connection to geography. This worship of progressive cities and communities is damaging to the radical changes that our community needs and can facilitate. If people in the South are merely waiting for change to happen in other places, or only have access to a narrative of escape, then we are doomed at our own hand. We must begin to organize ourselves at the local level all over the South. I am firmly convinced that the next big movement for progress will come from the South and we have the potential here in North Carolina to do so. But, the only way that we can do it is to take direct action here in our cities, counties and neighborhoods. We have to stop giving money to national organizations that take but have no plans to reinvest where we live. If the great liberal queer strongholds of the North are so close to winning their fights for equality then let them fund the Human Rights Campaign and the Task Force. We have organizations in Charlotte that are doing amazing work and we need to be supporting them. : :
— Joshua Burford is the assistant director for sexual & gender diversity at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and will be teaching courses in queer history at UNCC beginning in the fall of 2013.