Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, plays into our worst stereotypes about the South. Her intransigence in the face of June’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide places her in a legacy of Southerners who have refused to follow the law of the land, instead using the power of their office to keep progress at bay.
But LGBTQ communities in the South face challenges beyond Kim Davis’s bigoted claims in the name of religious freedom. Since 1993, the organization Southerners on New Ground (SONG) has worked to address some of those challenges, specifically the criminalization and police violence that affect its 3,000 members across the region. SONG takes on local fights, such as its current campaign in Durham, North Carolina, to pass an ordinance to stop police profiling of the city’s LGBTQ, black, immigrant and youth residents. The Atlanta-based organization also collaborates nationally with Black Lives Matter and the Not1More organizing, strengthening the role that LGBTQ activists play in movements to end deportations and anti-black racism.
Later this year, SONG will change leadership: co-director Caitlin Breedlove will step down, and Mary Hooks will join Paulina Helm-Hernandez in leading the organization. I interviewed Hooks via e-mail about how the Supreme Court ruling on marriage affects her work and the role of religion in Southern organizing. The exchange that follows has been edited for clarity and length.
DMcC: In a recent published conversation between SONG’s current co-directors, Helm-Hernandez says, “This was never just a job to us; this was a place for our political dreams.” What is a pressing political dream you have right now, and why is SONG the place to pursue it?
MH: I dream about rigorous, bold, courageous leadership that can work across movements to take on key fights of our time. Our communities were criminalized and targeted by the war on drugs, and we grew up in that warfare. We refuse to let that war shape our lives anymore. I’m excited about winning LGBTQ-led anti-criminalization campaigns that change the real day-to-day state of our lives.
The LGBTQ movement emerged from a century of liberation fights that were based on identity. Now we are seeing the strategic necessity of our communities to work together not just around identity, but also around the giant forces creating these problems and the solutions that we want to collectively create.
DMcC: You’re moving into the role of co-director after working with SONG for four years as both Alabama field organizer and regional campaign coordinator. What’s a key lesson about LGBTQ organizing that you intend to carry with you into this new leadership position?