It's a watershed year fraught with turmoil for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Across the American South, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people are facing wave after wave of legislation that threatens our safety, well-being and very existence.
From "bathroom bills" to ordinances that permit discrimination, this battle is in many ways a backlash to all of the victories our community has seen recently --including last year's nation-wide legalization of same-sex marriage -- and it serves a multitude of political and social purposes for the religious right.
In this new series, HuffPost Queer Voices Deputy Editor JamesMichael Nichols, who hails from North Carolina himself, talks to some of the leaders, movers and shakers of the fight for queer and trans liberation in the South about their own personal experiences as activists, the current political and social climate for the LGBT community in these states and the action that we, as a community, can take to help.
In early 2014, the city of Shreveport, Louisiana, attempted to pass an ordinance that would strip the non-discrimination protections afforded to the local LGBT community. Pamela Raintree, a life-long activist and transgender woman, refused to let this happen in her community.
In January of that year, Raintree showed up to the city's council meeting with a rock in her hand and she dared Councilman Robb Webb to stone her. “Leviticus 20:13 states, ‘If a man lie also with mankind as he lieth with a woman, they shall surely put him to death.’ I brought the first stone Mr. Webb, in case that your Bible talk isn’t just a smoke screen for personal prejudices.”
Raintree's brave and bold move served as a source of inspiration for activists around the country. Now, she kicks off this new series for HuffPost, reflecting on her life as an activist, as well as how we can understand and fight back against the threats to the lives and livelihoods of LGBT people currently living in the American South.
The Huffington Post: Start off by telling us your story. When is the moment that you feel like you first became an activist?
Pamela Raintree: I’ve been an activist from the first time someone insisted that I was a boy and I insisted they were wrong -- somewhere around age of four or five. I became involved in community activism in 1989. My marriage was on the rocks because of my gender identity issues. My career was being overtaken by computers, and I was suffering what, at that time, was called a “Gender Identity Crisis” (an emotional state close to suicide, triggered by an insufferable sexual status). Not knowing where else to turn, I called a gay and lesbian hotline.
As it turned out, the notable gay activist, Ray Hill, was working the phone that day. After I explained the problem he told me there was an organization where I could meet other transsexuals. The term “transgender” hadn’t been coined yet. The next day I met Mr. Hill, and found myself joining the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. A few days later I attended my first meeting. Someone proposed repealing the voting rights of the transsexuals and drag queens in the group. The motioned passed and all the people I’d hoped to meet stood up and walked out en masse. At that moment I became an activist.
I relocated to Shreveport in 1996, where I focused more on educating the public about transgender issues and organizing. I wasn’t very good at organizing but became a regular speaker at colleges. I also met one on one with dozens of people struggling with gender identity issues, and with their family members. My most satisfying work was helping parents understand their transgender children.
I'd like to talk specifically about when you brought a rock to a city council meeting in Louisiana and dared Ron Webb to stone you. What was going through your head? Did you intend it to be a larger political/activist moment or was it something more personal that you had to do?
When the Shreveport City Council adopted a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance, I was elated. When the “Fairness Ordinance,” as it was called, came up for repeal a month later, I was furious. Councilman Ron Webb cited religious objections to protecting “homosexuals” from discrimination.
I’d heard all of the arguments, pro and con, and knew that no one would so much as mention Councilman Webb’s only argument -- his “religious belief.” Nothing he said came from the Bible. None of the “religious freedom” arguments are Bible-based, for that matter. While everyone else acts like religious beliefs can’t be challenged, I realized no other arguments even matter. Since I believe that legislators who introduce religion into our legal system are violating the anti-establishment clause, I have no qualms about attacking their religious beliefs. I felt a need to demonstrate that to fellow activists as much as I wanted to derail Councilman Webb’s attack on the LGBT community. Not being one to back down from bullies, that’s what I did.
Why do you feel like legislators have chosen this particular moment -- and these particular issues -- in order to attack and discriminate against LGBT people in the South?
First, let me say that it’s important to know that bathroom laws targeting transgender [individuals] are neither new, nor restricted to the South. The transgender community has been fighting bathroom restrictions for years. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, seventeen states prohibit discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of gender identity. Getting those protections took a long time and enormous effort. What’s new is the media attention being given to transgender [individuals]. Hate groups around the nation amassed large fortunes to fight marriage equality and military inclusiveness for gays and lesbians. Having lost those fights, the hate groups needed a new reason to exist, and the infotainment industry needed sensational headlines. Conservative politicians also needed a new wedge issue to divide voters,and distract their constituents from the fact that the GOP agenda is diametrically opposed to the needs of their base. The South just happens to be the last bastion of Manifest Destiny for W.A.S.P. (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) Social Darwinists. I think the bathroom battles were inevitable.
What challenges for LGBT people in the South are unique or different from the rest of the country?
Christian fundamentalism. Certainly, there are Christian fundamentalists all over the United States, but I think we have the greatest concentration of them in the Deep South. Displays affirming Christianity are sprinkled across the landscape. Almost every conversation elicits declarations of faith, and traditional greetings have been replaced with comments about being “blessed.” Even well-educated people, like Louisiana’s former governor, Bobby Jindal, and the faux family Robertson run around preaching a gospel of hate.
Hate groups around the nation amassed large fortunes to fight marriage equality and military inclusiveness for gays and lesbians. Having lost those fights, the hate groups needed a new reason to exist, and the infotainment industry needed sensational headlines.
The Religious Right is, generally speaking, like Councilman Webb: illiterate about what the Bible actually says. I often wonder how many of them have read the Bible, on their own, without someone standing over their shoulder telling them it says something else. The worst part is that the doctrine of intolerance that pervades the Religious Right is a common element to every mainstream political demographic in the South. Discrimination is promoted by nearly everyone: overtly, covertly, and/or unwittingly. It’s ingrained in the culture and every bit as intractable as rape culture is at the national level. I don’t know whether or not that’s unique to the South, but it’s the biggest challenge faced by the transgender community down here.
How do we go about changing hearts and minds of people in the South? Are there specific strategies that need to be used in the South as opposed to other places?
It’s been sixty-two years since the Brown v. Board of Education ruling required school desegregation. There are STILL school districts fighting against compliance. The Republican resistance to everything President Obama has approved is based more on racial disgust than anything else. The racial divide is most obvious in the rise of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. We are NOT going to change those people’s hearts and minds.
The way forward, for all minority populations, will require a multi-faceted strategy. We need: educators informing potential allies (the movable middle, in political parlance), helping professionals, representatives of the news media, and anyone within the community representing transgender [individuals] to those outside the community; advocates and lobbyists wooing elected representatives; advocates to organize support networks and raise funds; activists to oppose the actions of our detractors, and militants to give teeth to the movement. History shows us that all of these elements are necessary for a successful effort to gain rights that have traditionally been reserved for an elite majority.
First, however, members of the LGBTQQIR1butRU need to quit fighting over labels and who to exclude. Like it or not, society at large lumps us all together as sexual deviants, labels be hanged. As independent communities all of us are merely micro-populations and easily ignored. Gay males, for instance, only represent – what – 0.2% to 0.8% of the population, and transsexuals only number around 700,000. In the grand scheme of things those numbers are too inconsequential to have a voice in this country. But our combined numbers, when we embrace the whole Rainbow, especially bisexuals and the full range of gender variant individuals, probably approaches half the population of our society. If we can stop the infighting long enough to organize a true human rights campaign, then we could have our equality and paint the White House in Rainbow colors within a decade.
2016 is an election year -- how does that change the way we should think about the movement for LGBT rights and protections in Southern states and what the movement is doing?
As in every election year since the McCarthy Era, conservatives have been keeping the Rainbow community busy stomping out fires during the campaign season. This year it’s bathroom laws. As a community, we cannot ignore the attack on transgender rights because there is much more at stake than who pees where. The bigger issue is about who determines a person’s identity. Historically, the state has claimed the exclusive authority over who a person can be. That authority extends to the establishment of identity standards and proscribed behaviors for each identity recognized. Every discriminatory law ever passed by any state has been based on that premise. Even if we win the bathroom dispute in North Carolina, which I have no doubt that we will, the underlying premise will remain intact, allowing the GOP to attack members of the Rainbow community, just as they have done to roll-back Roe v. Wade, and resist desegregation.
If we can stop the infighting long enough to organize a true human rights campaign, then we could have our equality and paint the White House in Rainbow colors within a decade.
At the risk of minimizing the importance of the presidential election, I think we need to focus most intently on changing the make-up of Congress. Whoever becomes president, Congress is the real key to getting pro-rights laws passed. According to Ballotpedia, thirty-four Senate seats are up for grabs, and 435 House seats will be voted on. The LGBT+ leaderships should already be working behind the scenes to ensure that we have allies running for those offices.
What do you think the new generation of LGBT activists can learn from the generations before?
What I would like the younger generations to learn is the history of the transgender movement. That old saying about repeating history if you don’t know the history applies to my community as much as it does to any other group. For example, the gay community rallies around commemorative celebrations of the riots at the Stonewall Inn. A few younger trans folk know that our community was involved, but don’t know that our Stonewall moment occurred three years earlier, in August of 1966, at San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria. This year will be the 50th anniversary. It will pass without celebration, without pride, without a sense of accomplishment, to face another Transgender Day of Remembrance, which has become so demoralizing that participants reading the increasingly long lists of names are becoming suicidal around Nov. 20. I would like the younger generations to learn how my generation wasted so much time and energy fighting over labels and debating who belongs under the trans umbrella and who doesn’t. I see them making those same mistakes again, and can only shake my head, because I know they have to learn by trial and error.
Looking towards the future, what does an American South where LGBT people are liberated and free look like to you?
That, frankly, is so far removed from reality that I cannot imagine it. I only look forward to a day when state-sanctioned discrimination is brought to an end, and every individual is afforded the right of self-determination. That is, after all, nothing more or less than our founders expressed in the Declaration of Independence, where they spoke of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.