THE BLOG
08/20/2013 04:52 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

No Region Left Behind: Why the Time Is Now for a Southern Strategy

Those of us doing LGBT work in the South have long lamented what we perceive as a very real bias against our region of the country. Many progressives outside the region appear to feel as though the South is a lost cause, full of short-term losses for the LGBT community and unwinnable campaigns for equality. They seem to believe we are too politically regressive for any real progress to be made. Consequently, we are often passed over for movement building or sustaining funding.

Unfortunately, we have been proven right about that once again.

The most recent study by the Funders for LGBTQ Issues found that in 2011, over $123 million in grants were awarded to fund LGBT work across the county. However, organizations in the South received less than 4 percent of that funding, totaling just $3.8 million. Given that a full one third of the U.S. population resides in the South, and that some evidence suggests that the South is one of the fastest-growing regions for LGBT couples and families, this disparity of investment is not just appalling for movement leaders throughout the region but devastating for the Southern communities we serve.

Those of us in the South recognize that our fight for full equality will not be easy. When the history of our national movement is written, the last chapter will be the one about our region of the country. However, this level of financial neglect is nonetheless staggering, and unless there is a commitment to increasing support for our efforts, reaching full and equal protections and rights for LGBT Americans will take years, if not decades, longer than it has to.

There are significant opportunities in the region today. Recent pieces in The Huffington Post and The Progressive highlight how the South is no longer the monolithic, conservative, white bastion that it once was. In particular, there have been a couple great pieces in The American Prospect (here and here) about the apparent conflict between an increasingly liberal electorate and the conservative legislators who represent them -- a fight playing out every day within my own state of North Carolina. It paints a picture of a conflicted South, with the population of dominant white, male conservatives shrinking, replaced with more progressive transplants from the North and Midwest, and growing populations of African Americans and Latinos, who tend to vote for Democrats.

We observed this shift firsthand here in North Carolina, as we went through a brutal battle to oppose Amendment One, our own anti-marriage-equality amendment, last year. Even though Amendment One passed with 61 percent of the vote, it was one of the slimmest margins of victory seen in a Southern state, which historically passed similar amendments by 70 percent or more.

In fact, polls at the time showed that voters were conflicted and confused. Even though this amendment would ban civil unions and gay marriage, a majority of North Carolinians (51 percent) supported some form of legal recognition for gay couples. Interestingly, when voters were asked the same question 10 months later, support for legal recognition had jumped by 10 points.

Although we lost at the ballot box, our movement gained so much as a result of our efforts. The campaign saw prominent Democrats and Republicans speaking out against Amendment One; over 400 clergy and 300 business leaders publicly urged citizens to vote no; hundreds of students from campuses across the state were organized and will no doubt become future leaders for equality in their own right; and the Republican Speaker of the House himself suggested the amendment would be repealed within two decades.

Perhaps most importantly, our colleagues in other parts of the country were able to use lessons learned in North Carolina when they fought their own ballot measures. Our work in faith communities, rural communities, and communities of color set a new standard for organizing and activism and are worthy of study, replication and investment throughout the country.

In short, at a time when victories for the LGBT movement could become fewer and farther between, the South represents the new frontier for LGBT activism. It's a region defined by the very characteristics that the LGBT movement needs most right now: perseverance, resistance, and intersectionality, with a focus on basic visibility, compelling storytelling and building relationships.

We have much to do, but we have come so much further than most realize. We have taken great strides and broken down barriers, and we have an opportunity to bring the South in step with many regions of the county. Our community rejects the notion of two Americas, one with equality and one without. They are eager to continue the fight -- regardless of where they live.

However, the LGBT movement in the South cannot do the important work we have ahead of us without adequate resources. If funders wait for the political climate or public opinion to change before providing us with the resources necessary to do our work, it will be too late.

In the last week of July, several national and regional grant makers met in Charlotte, N.C., to, in the words of their host, "assess assets, gaps, and opportunities for funding LGBTQ issues in the Southeast." This is encouraging. We understand that resources are limited. A lot of good work on LGBT equality is being done all across the county. We get it: The "pie" is only so large. However, it is one thing to have to share a slice of the pie, but it is another thing entirely to be forced to fight over the crumbs.