LGBTQ in the South: Quality of Life versus Life and Death?

Over the past decade, the LGBTQ movement has fought for and witnessed policy campaigns across the country. SONG, as the largest grassroots LGBTQ organization rooted in the South, has seen these policy fights simultaneously mobilize LGBTQ people and open doors to conversations that would not have otherwise occurred in our communities. For over twenty years, we have engaged with these policy fights when possible and necessary while understanding that this region cannot be transformed by policy alone. We know this truth, because we stand in a present political moment in which gains struggled for and won during the Civil Rights Movement (voting rights, affirmative action, etc.) are being dismantled piece by piece by the conservative Right mobilizing white resentment from the fight back of people of color. We see this political force tap into this resentment to turn back policy on everything from reproductive choice to food access in the Farm Bill.

As we watch this reality unfold, we also know hundreds of members of our LGBTQ community in the South who are trans and gender non-conforming, people of color, poor, and immigrant whose lives have not been transformed by the most recent LGBTQ quality of life policy fights. While it is meaningful change that can come about by LGBTQ people who are doing relatively OK, working to win changes to make their lives better, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to the breadth of our LGBTQ family if we do not remember that the threat of homophobic and transphobic violence can become a reality for any LGBTQ person. As LGBTQ people, improving our quality of life is our central social change concern but only when our life is not in daily risk. When we are not sure we will have a life tomorrow to defend the quality of, we focus on what is hurting us most deeply every day.

For many of us, this violence manifests in a climate where day in and day out we face the possibility of deportation and detention, race-based attacks from the police, or assault using public restrooms because of our gender or sexuality. All of this is why, as SONG, we are not just concerned with quality of life policy fights but also life and death issues like everyday LGBTQ violence, police harassment, deportations of LGBTQ immigrants, and the high rates of incarceration of LGBTQ people of color.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) recently claimed that, “there are two LGBTQ Americas.” SONG agrees that there are vast differences in the daily, lived experiences of LGBTQ people in this country, however these differences are not solely based on policy protections available in some states and not in others. The primary division of an LGBTQ America is divided along lines of race, class and other oppression that criminalizes LGBTQ people of color, trans people, poor people and immigrants for being who they are.

As national organizations like HRC begin to make larger investments in the South, which is a positive development in many ways, we feel called as a long-standing LGBTQ liberation organization in the South to lift up and clarify the people who make up the South. The South is soon to be a majority people of color region, which means that the LGBTQ community will also be majority people of color. It is a region with very large rural communities and poor communities. When we talk about the future of the South and LGBTQ rights, we have a duty to be clear about what and who we are talking about.

SONG appreciates that these new organizational investments in the South have a fresh emphasis on building safety for LGBTQ Southerners which make it easier for LGBTQ people to come out, advance strategies for cultural change (not just policy change), and transform our communities for the better for all LGBTQ people.

In order to be successful, we know that any significant investment in the South must consider the important lessons of decades of organizing in this region. We have learned that by building our own communities power and the power of our allies. This power is what creates our safety, dignity, and self-determination. Our power is what we need to build culture change that cannot be turned back.

SONG will continue to prioritize LGBTQ life and death issues, because when we look back at this time in history, we need to be able to say as an organization that we fought as hard as we could for the dignity and safety of not only the LGBTQ people most accepted by society but also those most attacked and criminalized. The leadership the South needs is already in the South; we need only that leadership to be resourced, supported, and amplified.