Who’s left to Create Change in the South?

Community Voices

[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.

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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. : :

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— 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.

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6 Replies to “Who’s left to Create Change in the South?”

  1. Janice Covington March 5, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Very good articular. I am glad that others can see through the smoke. You are on the point

  2. Call be a cynic, but I think you’re exaggerating the strength of the gay community in North Carolina. We’re talking about a state where, less than a year ago, two thirds of residents voted to amend the constitution to bar us from any form of legal relationship protection. There may have been no discussion of southern victories because there haven’t been any worth mentioning.
    I’ll grant that the national organizations need to spend more time on the southern states, but most of them have constitutional amendments in place and no indication of a desire to lift them. What reason have we given to indicate we would be a good investment for these national organizations to sink money into?

    1. Great thoughts, Patrick. Thanks for joining the conversation! What do you think about issues other than marriage equality? North Carolina has, indeed, had several landmark victories outside of the marriage issue, including the 2009 School Violence Prevention Act, the first-ever statewide law on bullying in the South to include sexual orientation and gender-identity. North Carolina even beat Massachusetts in creating a similar law there. North Carolina, like other southern states, are also making progress on the local level. Several municipalities and county governments in North and South Carolina include protections for LGBT people in public employment and partner benefits, as well as some public accommodations ordinances in South Carolina.

      1. If I’m not mistaken, in 2009 Democrats had more control of the the state legislature, and we had a Democratic governor. That situation has been reversed, which was what allowed for Amendment 1 to be passed. I do think that the bullying law is an important victory, I have little doubt that it would fail if proposed today. While I’m tempted to say that the national organizations should try for those kinds of less controversial measures, when hear about things like Tennessee’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill or a number of other bills that have been brought up in southern and mid-western states to give a “religious exemptions” to bullies, I can understand why they think even bullying bills could be losers here.
        As far as the local ordinances go, I have to question the efficiency of national gay rights organizations taking such a small picture approach. They want to do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of gays, which means working a state or national levels. Furthermore, they’d probably do a poor job at targeting resources to areas they genuinely don’t understand.
        I think you could argue that the national groups should shift their strategy to building up support in places where they don’t have it. But they’ve got a big to-do list. I don’t blame them for wanting to do the easy jobs first.

  3. Janice Covington March 7, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    As far as change in our state it will have to be done with local people,not outsiders. I feel we can overcome the fears just through education and socializing.

  4. Jennifer Collins March 15, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    In Tuscaloosa Alabama we have begun bridging the gap between the local community and the academic collegiate world. I, and many others, are part of Southerners on New Ground. A great organization that empowers LGBTQA+ Southerners to organize and work together. We have the right to stay. live, love and work in our communities. There is much work to be done. SONG members continue to recognize the intersectionality of our identities and lives and use everyones gifts to add to the uplifting of our community.
    Working as liaison with community leaders and the available programs at the university level there are many challenges. There has been some progress and we who are passionate about this work will continue to move forward.

    Jennifer L. Collins
    Instructor
    University of Alabama
    Department of American Studies
    PhD Candidate IDS PhD Program

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