Equal­ity for all

At­lanta’s Na­tional Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights to open LGBT In­sti­tute

GA Voice - - Front Page - By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS

When the Na­tional Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights opened in down­town At­lanta last June, the LGBT com­mu­nity won­dered how much of our sto­ries would be in­cluded. The an­swer was, by most ac­counts, a fair amount. Noth­ing mind-blow­ing, but noth­ing to march in the streets about.

Since the Cen­ter’s open­ing, any of its strug­gles seem less to do with a lack of con­tent to in­clude from var­i­ous groups rep­re­sent­ing the African-Amer­i­can civil rights move­ment, women’s is­sues, global hu­man rights is­sues and LGBT is­sues and more from find­ing a place in the Cen­ter to in­clude all of those voices.

“Folks cer­tainly have com­men­tary,” says Doug Ship­man, CEO of the Cen­ter. “I get a cou­ple of emails a week that say ‘Why don’t you have any­thing on this? What don’t you have more than this?’ It’s some­thing we knew that we were go­ing to deal with it, but frankly I’d rather be hav­ing that, be­cause that means that peo­ple want to be in­cluded and they want to be re­flected, as op­posed to ‘Please no.’”

Lit­tle did many know that Ship­man and many oth­ers have been busy be­hind the scenes, and in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with the Ge­or­gia Voice, they re­veal ex­cit­ing new plans about what’s to come.

This sum­mer, the Cen­ter will open the LGBT In­sti­tute, an in­ter­na­tional LGBT or­ga­ni­za­tion housed in­side the Cen­ter that will in­clude an ed­u­ca­tional com­po­nent, pro­gram­ming and an an­nual awards gala. And open­ing this fall will be an ex­hi­bi­tion delv­ing into the his­tory of LGBT At­lanta.

Cen­ter ad­min­is­tra­tors say they could not give a to­tal fig­ure on the cost of the LGBT In­sti­tute. The en­tire Cen­ter at 42,000-square­foot fa­cil­ity had an orig­i­nal price tag of $125 mil­lion, but that was di­aled down to $75 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to cen­ter of­fi­cials.

Catch­ing up with an old friend

Three years ago, Ship­man got to­gether with an old col­lege friend, Brian Tolle­son, the openly gay CEO of At­lanta ad­ver­tis­ing agency BARK BARK. While catch­ing up, they started talk­ing about how the Cen­ter could tackle LGBT is­sues.

Tolle­son brought up the idea of cre­at­ing an in­sti­tute within the Cen­ter whose sole pur­pose would be to fo­cus on LGBT civil rights around the world, while fol­low­ing the Cen­ter’s model of not be­ing the author­ity, but the con­vener.

“In­vite HRC, in­vite Lambda Legal, in­vite ac­tivists from around the globe to have con­ver­sa­tions and cel­e­brate the work ev­ery­one’s do­ing but from an aca­demic per­spec­tive chron­i­cling our his­tory,” Tolle­son tells the Ge­or­gia Voice. The idea took root. “The no­tion of com­bin­ing an aca­demic el­e­ment with a pro­gram­matic el­e­ment around LGBT is­sues was one that im­me­di­ately sparked our imag­i­na­tions,” Ship­man says. “That re­ally birthed the idea of the LGBT In­sti­tute.”

Ship­man kept that idea in mind as the Cen­ter took shape and the grand open­ing ap­proached, talk­ing with sev­eral oth­ers in the LGBT com­mu­nity to get their feed­back in the process.

One im­por­tant as­pect of the In­sti­tute is that it will be housed in­side the Cen­ter, an or­ga­ni­za­tional rea­son not with­out sym­bol­ism. It fights back against the no­tion some have that LGBT rights aren’t civil rights and can’t be com­pared to the strug­gles of other dis­en­fran­chised com­mu­ni­ties.

“In the LGBT com­mu­nity and move-

ment, there’s a lot of peo­ple work­ing on a lot of dif­fer­ent things, so to have some­place that’s out­side the belt­way of New York, D.C., L.A., or San Fran­cisco that’s grounded in the his­tory of the civil rights move­ment is inspiring,” says Ryan Roe­mer­man, in­terim ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the In­sti­tute.

Roe­mer­man says that they will pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to LGBT is­sues that don’t get as much ex­po­sure as oth­ers.

“For ex­am­ple in the LGBT move­ment, you have a lot of con­ver­sa­tions around mar­riage or bul­ly­ing but there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween legal equal­ity and lived equal­ity,” he says.

He men­tions LGBT se­niors and in­come in­equal­ity among LGBT peo­ple ver­sus straight peo­ple as ex­am­ples. They also plan for the In­sti­tute to be a place that bridges the divide be­tween aca­demics and ac­tivists.

“We’ve talked to a lot of aca­demics who are say­ing, ‘There’s a lot of great work go­ing on, but ei­ther we’re not all talk­ing to­gether or aca­demics are talk­ing to aca­demics and ad­vo­cates are talk­ing to ad­vo­cates, but we’re not com­ing to­gether.’ And that’s what the In­sti­tute can help pro­vide,” he says.

Other ini­tia­tives on tap in­clude a part­ner­ship with Emory Uni­ver­sity to bring in a vis­it­ing scholar to speak on LGBT is­sues, and a part­ner­ship with the Point Foun­da­tion to iden­tify re­search fel­lows to zero in on LGBT re­search gaps. They’ll use the find­ings to call for pa­pers to be pre­sented an an an­nual sym­po­sium hosted by the In­sti­tute, where aca­demics from around the globe will come to share their knowl­edge.

An­other peg in the In­sti­tute’s mission is an an­nual awards gala called the LGBT In­sti­tute Medals, again hosted by the In­sti­tute and with sep­a­rate awards for in­di­vid­u­als in gen­eral, trans­gen­der in­di­vid­u­als, gov­ern­ments and non-prof­its.

“It’s the com­bi­na­tion of not just talk­ing about what needs to be done, but cel­e­brat­ing what has been done,” Roe­mer­man says.

Supreme Court de­ci­sion nears as In­sti­tute opens

In ad­di­tion to the ed­u­ca­tional and awards com­po­nents of the In­sti­tute, there will be a ded­i­cated pro­gram­ming com­po­nent both on­line and on a quar­terly ba­sis at the Cen­ter.

The In­sti­tute’s pro­gram­ming board will meet quar­terly to set pro­gram­ming goals and as­sist with out­reach to the com­mu­nity. Those named to the board as of now in­clude: poet, scholar, rap­per and youth ac­tivist Tim’m West; ar­chiv­ists Mona Ger­ard and Hillery Rink from the Ge­or­gia LGBTQ Ar­chives Project; re­li­gious scholar Leti­tia Camp­bell; Dr. Michael Shutt of the Cen­ter for Di­ver­sity and In­clu­sion at Emory Uni­ver­sity; Charis Cir­cle Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor El­iz­a­beth An­der­son; hu­man rights and HIV/AIDS ac­tivist Dr. Michael Adee; and Dina Bai­ley, direc­tor of ed­u­ca­tional strate­gies for the Cen­ter.

While there are cur­rently no trans­gen­der mem­bers on the board, Roe­mer­man vows that they will ap­point one be­fore the In­sti­tute opens this sum­mer, and says they are also look­ing for some­one to rep­re­sent LGBT youth.

The Cen­ter re­cently hosted a group of 50 col­lege stu­dents who were in town for the Stamps Schol­ars Na­tional Con­ven­tion, with Ship­man fa­cil­i­tat­ing a two-hour con­ver­sa­tion about lessons from past civil rights move­ments that could be ap­plied to­day. Ship­man asked the group what they wanted to talk about, and the vast ma­jor­ity brought up trans­gen­der is­sues and other gen­der is­sues re­lated to the LGBT com­mu­nity.

“It re­minded me that even if you don’t ex­pect the is­sues to come up, as long as the in­sti­tu­tion is facile and is aware of how to make those con­nec­tions, you may have un­ex­pected ways in which they hap­pen,” Ship­man says, not­ing that gen­der and rec­on­cil­ing reli­gion with LGBT is­sues were the main top­ics that came up. “None of that two-hour con­ver­sa­tion was about mar­riage.”

It’s in­ter­est­ing tim­ing that the LGBT In­sti­tute will open this sum­mer, a sum­mer that could see the U.S. Supreme Court le­gal­ize mar­riage equal­ity na­tion­wide. If so, some say the LGBT com­mu­nity could splin­ter fur­ther, with­out a sin­gu­lar is­sue that most in the com­mu­nity seemed to rally be­hind. Who will bring those coali­tions to­gether post-mar­riage equal­ity?

“That’s ex­actly what the In­sti­tute is meant to do; it’s meant to pro­vide that fo­rum for those or­ga­ni­za­tions to come to­gether,” Roe­mer­man says. “When we’ve been talk­ing to folks about this and reach­ing out to the com­mu­nity, they’re say­ing that’s why we’d like to have a safe space to go to have some of th­ese hard con­ver­sa­tions. To take stock of, ‘Wow we’ve achieved a lot, but how do we live the equal­ity that we’ve achieved legally?’”

West, a poet, scholar, rap­per and youth ac­tivist who iden­ti­fies as bi­sex­ual/queer, echoes Roe­mer­man’s point.

“It’s not a knock against en­ti­ties that have piv­oted their con­cerns around some of the legal is­sues like mar­riage equal­ity or re­li­gious free­dom acts, but I think there are day-to-day ex­pe­ri­ences of LGBT peo­ple that don’t get ad­dressed by that,” he says. “Like peo­ple’s qual­ity of life, peo­ple’s sup­port in the com­mu­nity and let­ting them know they’re not alone.”

‘There’s a huge op­por­tu­nity to be a light for the na­tion’

Charis Cir­cle’s An­der­son is glad to know the In­sti­tute will be housed in­side the Cen­ter.

“It shows that LGBT peo­ple’s sto­ries and his­tory and lives are not only wor­thy of dig­nity and honor but our strug­gles have al­ways been in­ex­tri­ca­bly in­ter­twined with other so­cial jus­tice move­ments,” she says. “There’s no way to tell a sin­gle his­tory with­out bump­ing up against other move­ments. It feels like an im­por­tant un­der­stand­ing that we’re com­plex in­di­vid­u­als and that to me is a hope­ful way to look at or­ga­niz­ing for the fu­ture.”

The LGBT At­lanta his­tory ex­hi­bi­tion will open around late Au­gust or early Septem­ber along a large wall next door to the room hous­ing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pa­pers.

“The wall will be an ex­hi­bi­tion of the le­gacy of At­lanta LGBT ac­tivism and how that’s a win­dow to the greater LGBT move­ment. Then we’ll go to a very lo­cal lens, work­ing with folks, pic­tures from here, a timeline here, of what’s hap­pened in At­lanta, who have been the peo­ple, but then as a way to un­der­stand what has hap­pened over time,” Ship­man says.

The LGBT In­sti­tute will open this sum­mer and an LGBT At­lanta ex­hibit will open this fall at the Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights. (File photo)

(Photo by Pa­trick Saun­ders)

Above: Poet, scholar, raper and youth ac­tivist Tim’m T. West is a mem­ber of the LGBT In­sti­tute’s pro­gram­ming board. (Photo by Rich Wil­liams Photography); Above right: The Cen­ter’s CEO Doug Ship­man says the LGBT In­sti­tute has been in the works for three years. (Photo by Pa­trick Saun­ders); Be­low right: Ryan Roe­mer­man will serve as in­terim ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the LGBT In­sti­tute.

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