COLUMBIA — The past year in South Carolina has been tough. Ask any LGBT citizen and they’ll tell you it hasn’t been an easy ride. The South Carolina Equality Coalition (SCEC) gained steam leading into the 2006 fight to defeat an anti-gay, anti-marriage constitutional amendment.
The organization received national and regional attention and support, but after their crushing defeat — and the victory for anti-family, religious advocates — the organization faced some real questions on how to best continue organizing in an atmosphere that had become undeniably hostile, complete with every legal and constitutional trimming the state could provide.
While there have been challenges, the South Carolina LGBT community has remained strong and visible. After the horrifying gay bashing of Sean Kennedy in May, the community had even more reason to remain strong.
SCEC is taking yet another step toward regrouping for the future. For the past six months the group has searched for an executive director with the knowledge, experience and ability to lead the group in the state’s new political and social reality.
At the end of November, that search became complete with the announcement that Marion County, S.C. native Ray Drew would become the organization’s new leader.
Returning to his home state after 21 years, Drew enters his new position with more than enough political, fundraising and organizing experience. He is a longtime leader in national and local politics and was the first executive director of the Family Pride Coalition (now the Family Equality Council), a national organization devoted to the public policy issues of LGBT parents and their families. He previously worked for AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts and the LGBT Center of San Diego.
Ray Drew brings a fresh perspective to SCEC.
Only a couple weeks into his position at SCEC, Q-Notes had the opportunity to speak to Drew about his vision for the organization, what he thinks it can accomplish and where he thinks the most progress for equality lies in the state of South Carolina.
So, what has it been like being away from your home state for so long? Are you glad to finally be back home?
It feels very good to be home. I left the state for a number of reasons and one of them was personal safety. I didn’t feel safe in this state being so outspoken. I know what it was like growing up in this state. It feels good to be coming back and contributing in whatever way I can in making this state safer for young people.
How does it feel moving back into your home state knowing that its populace voted to put LGBT people in a state of constitutional second-class citizenship?
I really consider that the front lines of the movement are going to be in the Southern states. This is where it all is going to be happening. We have a lot of challenges. The state legislature in California has passed gay marriage for two years now and they’re just waiting on a governor to sign it, but the real, significant and meaningful progress is gong to be in the South and South Carolina.
Do you think there is any hope for getting that amendment repealed anytime soon?
I think it must be said that marriage was not our agenda last year in South Carolina. That fight was thrust upon us by the right-wing bigots. There is a lot of work to be done at a much more basic level of human rights. We have to deal with hate crimes and safe schools, as well as employment discrimination. On a practical level, the case in South Carolina, and in many other states, is that marriage will eventually go to the Supreme Court and require federal intervention in much the same way as the case in Loving v. Virginia did.
Isn’t there anything at all SCEC and other groups can do to lessen the damage done by the amendment to LGBT individuals and families?
Everyday in South Carolina there are young LGBT teenagers considering suicide and they don’t commit suicide because of one profound event. Those suicides are deaths by a thousand paper cuts. Every time a preacher condemns them or a parent rejects them or a bully calls them “fag” — it cuts. Over the years, those cuts become so profound that these kids want to take their lives.
My overall mission in life is to keep those cuts from happening. Every time we speak up and stand up for equality we have possibly saved a kid’s life. Every time we stand up and speak out, those kids hear something positive about who they are.
The passage of the amendment was a real defeat for South Carolinians. What’s your take?
The problem with these amendments is that for the average LGBT person it takes you back to all those times you got beat up and called “fag” by the school yard bullies. We’ve got to remind people that for the first time in South Carolina, people are actually talking about the issues in real ways. For the first time ever, folks who never thought about gays in their lives are starting to hear the arguments and make up their own minds. When that amendment came there was an enourmous shift in the average person’s thinking about the gay community because the discussion was brought out so openly. Suddenly people are talking about the issues and learning. The conversation about LGBT people in South Carolina has been normalized now. This is about changing the hearts and minds of average folks. The passage of that amendment hurt, but that time is past and we are going to come out stronger than ever.
What is your vision for SCEC? What do you want to see accomplished in the near future?
We are going to become a powerhouse in this state’s political environment. The LGBT community in South Carolina is going to have strength. We are going to support those who support us and rise up against those who don’t. We are going to create an organization in this state that has to be dealt with and cannot be ignored. The days of asking for equality are over. It is not theirs to give. It is our birthright guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and we aren’t going to beg for it.
Any long-term plans, goals or strategies?
Hate crimes will be a legislative priority for our organization this year. SCEC is going to be working toward hate crimes legislation but this is not necessarily a gay issue. This is an issue for African-Americans, Latinos, the disabled and for people of different religions. The truth is that this affects every single person in this state. We will be taking on a leadership role in the state and bringing groups together from all sorts of backgrounds who have a stake in this legislation.
How do you think having you in the position of executive director is going to change operations in SCEC?
My job is to build up this organization. Right now we are just a small two person office. Like most state equality groups, we have struggled, especially in the face of so much anti-gay legislation. My goal is to build the resources, staffing, money and members to be a large and effective organization.
I have already spoken to Ian Palmquist of Equality North Carolina and I’ll soon be talking to Georgia Equality. The only way to move forward is by doing it together. Let’s create a coalition of something larger than ourselves. EqualityNC really has become a powerhouse in North Carolina politics. They are one of the strongest equality groups in the country in a relatively small Southern state. I don’t think any of the leaders of equality groups in the South would disagree when I say that when it comes to protecting people and making our states safer, there really are no state boundaries.
What is happening now?
Right now, the primary thing I’m doing is going out to every group and coalition partner in the state — anyone who is an ally or a potential ally — and I’m meeting with them and listening to them. The first thing I have to do is learn what people need and how best I can serve them.
If you had just a few moments to speak directly to the entire South Carolina legislature and they had no choice but to listen, what would you say?
The Constitutions of the United States of America and South Carolina guarantee every person equal protection under the law. You don’t get to decide who is worthy and who is not. This is a state of fair-minded and compassionate people, when they actually understand the issues. The people of South Carolina are good people who believe in fairness. My organization needs to do a better job of speaking to those people, and you in the state legislature need to do a better job at leading. South Carolina is a great state but it could be better — a place where all people can come together. We all could do a better job at that.
Learn more at www.scequality.org