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Southern Exposure: Fighting for LGBT Rights in the Deep South

Christine Sun,
LGBT Project
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July 10, 2008

Having lived in California for most of my life, I never imagined that I would spend many of my days travelling along highways in the Deep South. About a year ago, I moved to Nashville from Los Angeles to take a job as the Southeastern Regional Staff Attorney for the ACLU’ LGBT and AIDS Project. It’ sort of fun at parties to rattle off the states I cover (Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, you get the drift), but on days when it’ 98 degrees, I’ve been driving for 250 miles and am looking for a clean-enough gas station in rural Tennessee where I won’t be thrown out of the women’ restroom ’cause I have a crew cut and look like a 17-year-old boy, truthfully, I’m not that psyched.

Don’t get me wrong… I love my job. What could be more rewarding than fighting for LGBT civil rights in an area of the country where there’ so much to be done? There is still so much rawness here about people’ feelings about gay rights that is, on one hand, terrifying and on the other, oddly refreshing. In the year since I started working here, I’ve had a trial where a school principal explained with all seriousness that merely looking at a rainbow would cause students to visualize gay sex and possibly lead to teen pregnancy(!). One public high school board member, on an evaluation form of a presentation I did on anti-gay bullying, wrote: “I find this topic so offensive that I could not possibly objectively rate this speaker’ presentation.” Another school official wrote, “While I believe in not mistreating any individual, I resent being told that I have to compromise the Word of God for someone else’ one-sided approach to a situation.” In another case, a family court judge expressed his belief that our lesbian client was prioritizing “her libido” over the welfare of her children, simply because she had the audacity to ask that her partner of nine years be able to live in the same house.

But certainly, it’ not all doom and gloom. There are many fantastic people trying to do the right thing, and in circumstances that aren’t so friendly as, say, San Francisco, where I grew up. I’ve sat in a school board meeting where a high school student came out as transgender to a room of 200 strangers—not counting all the folks who would later see coverage of his speech on the evening news—so he could put a human face on the problems of bullying against trans kids in schools. I’ve gotten to be good friends with parents in rural Florida who’ve faced ostracism in their town of 462 because they bravely stood up against anti-gay censorship. And just last week, on July 4, the local paper profiled a student-led campaign to add sexual orientation and gender identity to their school district’ non-discrimination policy as an example of patriotism, writing about the students’ efforts, “The nation’ founding fathers were not nearly this organized.”

I could go on and on about the countless folks I’ve met who are working, mostly quietly and without fanfare, on bringing positive change to their communities. These are the folks who truly understand that it’ not enough to say that you “believe in not mistreating” people—you’ve got to act on it too.

So has this convinced you to come on down for a visit? In my travels, I’ve learned to get past the confederate flags dotting the interstate and billboards plaintively asking, “Where will you spend Eternity?” to see that there’ a lot of really neat stuff happening here.