Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ignoring Southern states has hampered equality

News items over the last few weeks have made it very clear that the real battle for equality is not on the coasts, but it is south of the Mason-Dixon line.

A young woman in Mississippi is denied the chance to bring her girlfriend to the prom by local school officials.

The Virginia Attorney General has issued an opinion that public universities cannot include sexual orientation and gender identity in their non-discrimination policies.

The Oklahoma Senate passed a measure to obstruct state cooperation with the federal government in enforcement of its newly inclusive hate crimes law.

The only bright spot is that the media have been shaken from their laser focus on marriage and Don't Ask Don't Tell, issues which while essential often obscure other fundamental rights the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community is fighting for. Does anyone remember a recent major story on ENDA, for example.

Shift for a moment to the federal level where more good bills than ever have been introduced. They cover issues of employment, equality in immigration, Don't Ask Don't Tell, adoption, housing, etc. Are any of them really moving? None of them fast enough, that's for sure.

Many factors are relevant to the inaction on these federal bills. Obviously the necessary focus on health care reform and the economy come to mind for anyone who has a sense of scale and context. But I want to highlight another factor--the South. Southern lawmakers on the whole aren't the leaders in introducing, sponsoring, and publicly supporting these bills. There are a few exceptions, but not nearly enough.

Ignoring this phenomenon is a strategic error. The question for the greater American GLBT community is whether we will allow the South to be neglected. It's a critical issue because the three stories above are not isolated events that only affect the people in those states and cities. They shape the ideology of those who show up in Congress to vote on key pieces of federal legislation bearing on the equality of us all. If 75+% of the members of Congress from the South won't budge on federal equality legislation, we can't expect quick passage of any bill.

So what's the answer? Yes, we've got to get more aggressively involved in the election and lobbying of Southern members of Congress. But we've also got to work harder at passing state and local protections in the South so that more Southern members of Congress represent areas that embrace equality. Two recent examples come to mind. Asheville, North Carolina is considering and Kissimmee, Florida has passed partner benefits for their city employees. In order to multiply examples like that, more of the GLBT community in the South must get involved at the local and state level. We can't stop for a moment working on the federal bills, but we've got to give more time, attention, and resources to local battles in the South.

We can do it. It's just a matter of awareness and will. If we do, we'll not only help ourselves but the whole country, too.

-Chris Sanders

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