ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Activists and organizers from eight states across the South gathered in this North Carolina Blue Ridge city Friday and Saturday for the Campaign for Southern Equality’s first conference, “LGBT in the South: Advocacy Within and Beyond the Law.”
Intersectionality was a recurrent theme at the event, filled with information for legal professionals, activists, faith leaders and lay people striving for LGBT rights. The conference was sponsored primarily by Asheville’s Hart Law Group and the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE).
Friday’s sessions were focused on panels and workshops for legal professionals. As Hart attorney Mae Craedick introduced an early morning line-up of such heavy hitters as Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, CSE Executive Director the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Shannon Price Minter, keynote speaker and legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, it was clear that this conference was the place to be for anyone serious about procuring and defending LGBT rights in the South.
A first glance at the program led one to believe that the focus (particularly on Saturday) would be on marriage equality with participation not only by the staff at CSE but by such notable speakers as Michael Crawford and Jake Loesch of Freedom to Marry and Marriage Equality USA’s Brian Silva. Indeed, there was a tremendous focus on marriage equality but as highly-respected activist Mandy Carter, co-foudner of Southerners on New Ground and national coordinator of the Bayard Rustin 2012-2013 Commemoration Project, reiterated, “It’s about marriage equality and….”
Carter and others spoke of the intersectionality of marriage equality and workers’ rights, marriage equality and homelessness issues, marriage equality and prison reform and inmate rights, marriage equality and immigration reform and immigrant rights, marriage equality and racial justice, and all other forms of injustice that impact the LGBT community. It became abundantly clear to all present that there is significant work to do above and beyond the tip of the iceberg that is the freedom to marry.
Following a poignant discussion between Reisinger and Beach-Ferrara (during which Reisinger revealed that in standing up for his belief in marriage equality he found himself “in the awful position of having to deny marriage licenses to same sex couples”), Minter delivered a powerful and emotional keynote speech that addressed the roller coaster that has become the national landscape for LGBT rights of late.
“Our country is going through transformation for LGBT people at a breathtaking pace,” Minter said.
While we are seeing state by state marriage bans falling like dominos, we are also bearing witness to states like Arizona, Georgia and Mississippi attempting to pass bills that would legalize anti-LGBT discrimination in the worst possible ways.
Minter also spoke at length about supporting our struggling LGBT youth as they experience high substance abuse and suicide rates. He urged us to “become advocates for our children and then become advocates for all children,” and went on to remind us to continue to tell our own stories as they become “a million tipping points of private courage.”
As the majority of the participants on Friday were legal professionals, there were concurrent and practical workshops offered that dealt with tax laws, estate planning, social security and veterans benefits and employee benefits laws. Beach-Ferrara, addressing the focus of Friday’s offerings, said that these professionals are “thrust on the front lines, serving people in crisis or needing to protect rights. We are giving them the strategies to make them zealous advocates in time of need.”
Saturday’s opening session at First Congregational United Church of Christ was populated by nearly 250 enthusiastic registrants from 8 southern states as well as Utah, Illinois, and New York.
Ivy Hill, leadership team chair of the Gender Benders, brought a contingent of nearly 30 gender non-conforming young people, their partners and allies, from Greenville, S.C. They discovered a welcoming atmosphere celebrating the “T” in “LGBT” by finding themselves reflected not only in attendance but also in positions of training and leadership.
Numerous workshops addressed transgender rights including training for legal professionals who represent transgender clients offered by Wake Forest University Divinity School’s Liam Hooper; a presentation on transgender rights in prisons, schools and workplaces facilitated by Chris Brooke, legal director of the ACLU of NC and Holning Lau, Professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law; transgender resources in the south offered by Hill and Allister Styan from WNC Community Health Services; along with hands-on name change clinics facilitated by the Freedom Center for Social Justice’s LGBTQ Law Center in Charlotte.
The day was packed with three concurrent workshops at a time, making it difficult to choose where to be during any one 50-minute session. Representatives from various faith communities came together to discuss being pastoral voices in the public square. Many on the panel addressed the hurt experienced within the church and how that has impacted their work toward LGBTQ rights, particularly here in the South.
“The South being unwinnable? That’s part of our spiritual wound,” said the Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, assistant minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville.
Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Atlanta’s Congregation Bet Havarim drew enthusiastic nods of agreement when he stated, “It wasn’t my faith that led me to activism, but my activism that led to my faith.”
Conference goers continued to be treated to presentations and discussion by rock stars in the current activist circles. Legal eagle and Utah Pride attorney Paul Burke shared horror stories from his years fighting Utah’s Amendment 3, passed in 2004. He continues to “fight laws that denigrate gay people from the time they discover they are gay,” including laws that make the formation of gay-straight alliances in schools all but impossible and the state of Utah arguing the parental right to determine a young teen’s sexual orientation.
Burke’s “Postcards from Another Red State” was followed by an all-star plenary session that included fervent pleas for intersectionality from panel participants Caitlin Breedlove of Southerners on New Ground, Ian Palmquist from Equality Federation, South Carolina Equality’s Ryan Wilson, and the the LGBTQ Law Center’s lead attorney, Kelly Durden.
Wilson reminded all present to raise their voices and be aware of their local representatives and Breedlove encouraged everyone in the continuing and sometimes seemingly uphill battle toward LGBT rights for all.
“Statewide policy wins are very difficult for us here in North Carolina right now,” said Breedlove. “We’ve struggled with loss but underneath that is deep change that lasts. It takes a long time to get there, but it lasts.”
At the end of a long but exhilarating weekend, conference participants were buoyed for activism, social justice and radical love.
Sarah Demerest, staff attorney for the Charlotte law center summed up intentional intersectionality beautifully.
“It is wonderful to change policy and laws but what good is marriage equality or non-discrimination policy unless we change the hearts and minds of people?” Demarest asked. “We are responsible to youth, those experiencing racism and poverty, our trans* brothers and sisters. We can’t leave anyone behind.”
And as Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara closed us out with a fist-bump and an “I have your back” for our neighbors around us, she reminded us all that it is “always right to stand up for love and it is always right to stand up for justice.”