On Saturday, Human Rights Campaign (HRC) announced it would embark on a three-year, $8.5 million plan to shift policies, hearts and minds on LGBT issues in the South—specifically Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. The investment, called Project One America, is part of a larger effort to develop campaigns and candidates that will advance LGBT rights in parts of the country where legal discrimination is still common.
Money makes such wins possible, and a look at nationwide funding for gay and trans communities shows why the South has lagged behind. According to a recent Funders for LGBTQ Issues report, nearly a third of the nation’s LGBT adults live in the nation’s fourteen Southern states—in fact, a higher concentration of out people reside there than in any other region—but the South receives fewer resources than other part of the country. If grant dollars were distributed evenly among gay adult Southerners, each would receive about $1.71. Compare this to an out LGBT person in the Northeast who, using this same per capita calculation, receives just over $10. Someone in a state along the Pacific coast receives an estimated $9.35.
No one’s disputing a need for more resources, but organizers with longstanding ties to Southern LGBT communities—particularly communities of color—have a variety of ideas about how this influx of cash should flow. In interviews with a handful of activists, a few common threads of advice for HRC emerged: (1) Don’t prioritize same-sex marriage to the exclusion of other struggles, (2) address the region’s legacies of racism and poverty head on, and (3) respect organizing styles and messages that resonate with Southerners. The overall thrust of their advice? Project One America won’t succeed unless it partners with organizations that already have deep ties in these communities across lines of race and class.
A single-issue focus won’t work
Among the nine goals HRC has identified are broad statements like “Empower LGBT people (and straight allies) to come out… Create safer environments for LGBT young people… Build support for enduring legal protections that ensure LGBT equality.” There’s no specific talk about a legislative agenda—whether the goal be marriage, laws prohibiting discrimination on the job or anything else. fact sheet mentions each of its three target states’ constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and offers polling data on support for marriage among certain demographics. Otherwise, the topic doesn’t come up much in materials released thus far. Despite its announcement of a broad, inclusive focus, many of the people I talked to associate HRC specifically with the fight for marriage, a fight they say won’t meet the needs of the communities they serve.
Caitlin Breedlove is co-director at Southerners on New Ground (SONG), which has organized around LGBTQ issues in the South since 1993. SONG’s membership—approximately 3,000 people—is a third Latino, a quarter black, and other members are white, multiracial and indigenous, according to Breedlove. She said if HRC is serious about fighting on multiple fronts, that’s a welcomed shift.