In April of 2009, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and her partner Julia Wallace sat in a small conference room in Durham, N.C. Both were Southern-born, twentysomething activists with academic training–Gumbs was wrapping up a Ph.D in English at Duke, and Wallace had a master’s degree in theology–but they weren’t there to debate theories or strategize about tactics. They were at a larger annual gathering of labor and human rights organizers, and around them sat over a dozen women, all of them self-identified black lesbians, and each one at least 20 years older. The workshop session was led by Mandy Carter, a longtime LGBT activist, and Carter wanted to share only one thing: stories.
So they did. The women told decades-old stories about trips through the South with their high school basketball teams, of first loves, and of families. Gumbs, now 30, remembers being struck by each woman’s bravery and overwhelmed by the sense that it was these women and their stories that laid the foundation for younger activists like herself to do the work about which she’s become passionate.
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"It’s very rare for people who are not in the same age group and who are part of the LGBT community to be together in the same space," Gumbs says.
That day, Gumbs and Wallace thought about how they could create more of those spaces. Not too long afterwards, they hopped in an RV armed with money from their families and set off to to find older black LGBT folks who wanted to also share their lives.
The idea turned into the Mobile Homecoming Project, a multimedia storytelling project to uncover hidden histories. Gumbs and Wallace scour their networks to find older members of the black LGBT community, record them on video or podcasts, and sometimes host screening events that bring together people from all ages.
The project has allowed them a firsthand look at how political work is being done in the regions of the country long overshadowed by their coastal counterparts. From Selma to San Antonio, Durham to Detroit, and dozens of small towns in between, they’ve seen up close how circumstance and necessity have helped build bridges across issues ranging from racial discrimination and unemployment to immigration and marriage equality.
This type of work–a patient focus on building broad and unexpected communities outside of the old gay political capitols–is starting to look like the future of LGBT politics. And as the debate over same sex marriage in particular drags on, LGBT communities in places like North Carolina, Minnesota and Mississippi are no longer cringing at it, they’re setting about redefining the discussion.
This year North Carolina became a pivotal stepping stone in the fight over marriage equality. In the spring, opponents of gay marriage ginned up support to pass Amendment 1, a revision to the state’s constitution that strengthened North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriages. The state’s conservative swing on family law wasn’t unique–29 similar amendments have already passed nationwide at the state-level. But what was different in North Carolina was the broad coalition that sprung up to oppose the move.
The Protect North Carolina Families Coalition came together from over 135 activist and legal groups, community centers, university clubs, and religious institutions. They pointed out that Amendment 1 wasn’t just an attack on gay marriage, but on anyone who fell outside of the conservative norm. They made their case that the law threatens domestic violence protections for unmarried women, strips legal protections away from children, and jeopardizes the pensions of senior citizens.
"It was more than a gay issue or equal rights for marriage issue," says Bishop Donagrant McCluney, the North Carolina Field organizer with Southerners On New Ground (SONG), an LGBT group that was part of the coalition that opposed the amendment. "It was more about codifying discrimination in the constitution."
Though Amendment 1 eventually won at the polls, the broad coalition that opposed it signaled a more promising future for progressive politics in the state. As Kenyon Farrow wrote for Colorlines.com shortly after the vote, the coalition’s work was a sign that activists are building a strong social justice infrastructure for the future.
SONG’s Paulina Helm-Hernandez said that the group was initially reluctant to join the coalition, after having been active in previous amendment fights in which race was ignored. But it was the group’s members that pushed it forward, especially its members of faith who were angry that the right was using religion to villainize members of the LGBT community.
"Our base pushed back really hard on us," says Paulina Helm-Hernandez, the group’s co-director. "They said, ‘We know that amendment fights may not be the most strategic thing, but they’re saying we’re pedophiles and we shouldn’t be around children.’"
A similar story is unfolding in Minnesota. In November, voters in that state will decide the fate of another proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. The effort has already gotten the high-profile endorsement of former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. But just like in North Carolina, a broad coalition–this time called Minnesotans United For All Families–is taking shape to not just oppose the ban on gay marriage, but to work toward building a more unified progressive political front in the state.
So far, the group is made up of over 130 organizations that range from faith-based groups and non-profits to businesses and unions. It’s raised $1.24 million dollars from over 5,000 individuals.
"In the Twin Cities, the LGBTQ community is very white," says Oskar Ly, a member of Shades of Yellow (SOY), a volunteer-led queer group that’s based in Minneapolis’s Hmong community. "Even in circles of queer people of color, often times Asian Americans and Hmong people are not really thought of."
During this year’s Pride parade in Minneapolis, SOY will be out in an effort to educate older members of the Hmong community about the amendment. "We’re not a political organization, but we think it’s important to have some political awareness of what’s going on," says Ly.
According to activists in the region, these sorts of coalitions aren’t just political niceties–they’re necessities.
Race and LGBT Rights
The day after North Carolina passed amendment 1, President Obama made his historic endorsement of same sex marriage, telling ABC’s Robin Roberts, "I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married." For the first time in the United States’s history, a sitting president said publicly that same sex relationships were equal to straight ones. But many in the media speculated that Obama’s endorsement would infuriate black voters, who were often cast as more homophobic than the rest of the electorate. A day after the president’s announcement, cultural critic Toure wrote at Time that black voters would punish Obama over his support of gay marriage. "Many show no empathy for gays as another legally oppressed minority and have no desire to see any similarity between the two historically oppressed identity groups."
In reality, research has shown that black opposition to marriage equality has softened considerably. Since 2008, the proportion of African-Americans favoring gay marriage has increased, while opposition has fallen almost 20 points. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that people of color overall are more likely to support gay marriage than whites.
But for many black LGBT activists, polling misses the point entirely. Keith Boykin wrote at the Huffington Post challenging the assumption that blacks had suddenly grown to support gay marriage. "We didn’t evolve overnight. We’ve been evolving for decades, even when the media wasn’t paying attention."
The president’s endorsement prompted a slew of prominent black celebrities and advocates to also voice their support for marriage equality. Jay-Z offered his two cents. "It’s not different than discriminating against blacks. It’s discrimination plain and simple," the rapper told CNN. A few days later, rapper Ice Cube voiced his support in AdAge Magazine, explaining, "I’ve had people in my family, myself and a lot of my ancestors have been victims of discrimination. So I don’t want to discriminate on nobody." Boxing champ Floyd Mayweather, Jr. tweeted, "I stand by the president and support gay marriage." Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime supporter of LGBT civil rights, compared the fight for gay marriage with the struggle to end slavery, and called for the president to push for federal protections instead of letting states decide.
Perhaps the most symbolically important endorsement, however, came from the NAACP. On May 19, the 103-year old civil rights group passed a resolution that endorsed gay marriage as a civil right.
Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP, said that his members supported the NAACP’s position because they saw their own liberties were at stake.
"It is no coincidence that we are seeing multiple states dredge up marriage purity laws at a time when the middle class is becoming aware of growing economic inequities between the richest Americans and the rest of this nation," Johnson wrote in a statement that was released shortly after the NAACP’s announcement. "Likewise, it is no accident that the issue of same sex marriage arises at a time when a host of southern states seek to create laws restricting voting."
Johnson told Colorlines.com that the South’s history of fighting for civil rights is at the root of his organization’s support of LGBT rights issues, though he was careful to add that the NAACP is not taking a moral stance on same sex marriage, but instead approaching it as a question of whether individuals are provided equal protection under the law.
"There was an attempt or belief that if the NAACP or others take a position in support of not codifying discrimination, that the religious base in our community would deeply oppose that. There have been attempts to create a wedge among the religious community and the Democratic Party based on morality issues–personhood, marriage equality, and abortion–and it hasn’t happened."
In fact, progressive organizers have learned to use those potential wedges to their advantage. Last fall, Pro-lifers In Mississippi introduced an amendment that would have outlawed all forms of abortion, including in cases of rape, incest, or for women who face life-threatening complications. The amendment, sponsored by conservative group Personhood Mississippi, was ultimately defeated thanks to a broad coalition of constituencies that came together to oppose it.
The Costs of Change
While Southern and Midwestern activists deal with today’s hot button political issues, funding–or a lack of it–has helped unite those with seemingly disparate interests.
"There hasn’t been as much left infrastructure in the South that’s been built around single-issue fights," says SONG’s Helm-Hernandez. "A lot of the organizations we work with that are building in the South can’t really do single-issue reform work. We can’t really do educational reform work without doing anti-racism work without addressing economic factors in our communities."
While that sort of hustle, as Helm-Hernandez calls it, might strain what little resources do exist, some activists think it’s an important part of having the freedom to try new things.
"A lot of our infrastructure for us to do movement-building in the Southeast does not come directly out of the 501(c)3 structure," says Helm-Hernandez, who helps lead the Atlanta-based group. "People are very resistent to incorporating it because they know that it’s been such a sucker of energy and resources."
To that end, Gumbs acknowledges that the Mobile Homecoming Project gets its energy from its grassroots supporters.
"Those of us who are working for liberation in the South have had to be creative and have also had the opportunity to be creative, because the kind of major funding norms that seem to govern other more metropolitan areas of the Northeast and California have not really been accessible," says Gumbs. "The Mobile Homecoming Project is completely grassroots funded. It’s funded by everybody–five dollars at a time."
Whether that will be enough to support a long-term movement remains to be seen. What’s clear is the coming years will see plenty of opportunities to find out, as insurgent conservatives push hard at the state level on everything from women’s health to LGBT rights. Gumbs says that in her travels she’s come across many people whom she calls "exiles," or Southern LGBT people who’ve felt the need to flee to other cities to live their lives safely and honestly. "For those of us who are here and have the privilege of being our whole selves here, the coalition-building is strengthened by how blatant the right is in attacking all of us."