ASHEVILLE, N.C. — As the movement for LGBT equality advances into the U.S. South, organizers of a weekend conference say they want to bring leaders and community members together to harness resources, brainstorm strategy and focus momentum.
About 200 people from eight states across the South will gather Friday and Saturday in Asheville for the Campaign for Southern Equality’s conference: “LGBT in the South: Advocacy Within and Beyond the Law.” Workshops will include panel discussions on marriage and employment discrimination, continuing education sessions for attorneys and training sessions for digital organizing and other events.
“I’m just so excited to learn from people and having an experience where people walk away with new skills, new connections and knowing that people have their backs moving forward,” said the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Campaign for Southern Equality executive director.
A significant portion of the conference is focused on marriage-related matters — from advocacy to tax-planning and other legalese. The Campaign is among several regional groups which have joined a national Southerners for the Freedom to Marry coalition announced this week to advance marriage for same-sex couples in the South. The groups will pour $1 million into the region, paying for media advocacy and organizing work.
Just last week, a federal judge in Virginia overturned the commonwealth’s anti-gay marriage ban. A federal judge in Texas did the same for that state on Wednesday. A similar case in North Carolina will soon be heard in a Greensboro federal court.
Working toward marriage in the South presents an opportunity to try different strategies and approaches, said Beach-Ferrara.
“The South is a unique part of the country,” she said. “The question is not how do you duplicate strategy that might have worked in New York or Washington, but how do we find a narrative that fits within our own cultural vernacular in the South.”
Southern states remain the most opposed to equality marriage. A new poll released Wednesday shows a majority of Americans now support marriage equality. But, particularly in the South, support remains split; 48 percent of southern poll respondents are in favor and 48 percent are opposed. In comparison, 60 percent of respondents in the Northeast and 51 percent in the Midwest are in favor.
Ryan Wilson, executive director of South Carolina Equality, said the South’s unique complexities don’t have to be seen as a challenge; in many cases, they are an opportunity.
“It’s useful when talking to the legislature,” Wilson said. “Marriage is always coming up in the news and lawmakers ask me what can we in reality work on here? It gives me an opportunity to start a conversation and also an opportunity to pivot to issues that may be of more pressing importance at the moment.”
Among those issues are employment, housing and public accommodations protections.
“Discrimination is a value no one in South Carolina would say they support, whereas there are still parts of our community still evolving on marriage equality,” Wilson explained.
The weekend conference will attempt to address those competing interests. Beach-Ferrara is looking forward to a panel discussion, featuring Wilson and other southern leaders like Durham, N.C., activist Mandy Carter, that will address these questions head on.
“Do we have to be held to narratives that emerged in other parts of the country?” Beach-Ferrara asked. “Or, as a southern queer community, can we be thinking and talking about these issues, tackling the questions explicitly and hands-on?”
Beach-Ferrara added, “We do ourselves a disservice as a community when these issues are framed as either-or. We want to be talking about the totality of equality and what that means in every sphere of our lives.”
South Carolina Equality has already begun a good bit of that work. Like the Campaign for Southern Equality, Wilson’s Palmetto State advocacy group has joined Southerners for the Freedom to Marry. But, they’re also addressing more base-level issues. On Wednesday, the group launched its statewide “Know Your Rights” campaign.
“There are so many parts of the community who don’t know what their rights are or what rights are being denied,” Wilson said. “It’s hard for folks to get involved or to get educated. We are constantly getting phone calls asking for information and previously we had to send them to 20 different websites to get the information they needed.”
Wilson said the new campaign, available at scequality.org/knowyourrights/, will seek to create a single “clearinghouse” of fact sheets information on non-discrimination protections, marriage rights, tax questions and more. Their first released fact sheet focuses on protecting relationships, with information on medical care issues, parenting and adoption.
“Only once we know where we stand can we know what we still need to work on,” Wilson said.
Beach-Ferrara hopes to make the conference an annual event. Uniting southerners doing work on the ground — many of them volunteers or, if paid, often underpaid and overworked — will be important as the national LGBT community turns its attention to the South. Recent studies and attention to the South have exposed funding gaps and increased needs. The South is home to a third of the nation’s LGBT population, but receives just 3-4 percent of domestic LGBT spending.
“On one hand, there is a cresting interest from both national organizations and funders in the South,” Beach-Ferrara said. “On the other hand, the South remains a region where discrimination is most firmly entrenched in state law. We have important work to do in the years to come. We have a compelling need to bring people together and be intentional in how we support each other.”
You can learn more about the conference at lgbtinthesouth.org and follow along over the weekend on Twitter, using the hashtag #lgbtsouth.