South being transformed by LGBTQ people of color
Barriers include violence, laws and unemployment
For the LGBTQ community, the South is known as a region that often hangs an unwelcome sign on its door.
A report out Tuesday reveals an eyeopening fact: Nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ people, or 32%, call the South their home. And the area is transforming, led by LGBTQ Southerners of color who are devising unique ways to build communities and uplift lives.
The report by the Movement Advancement Project, the Campaign for Southern Equality and the Equality Federation documents the striking numbers – 93% of LGBTQ Southerners live in states with low or negative equality rankings – with the work of groups navigating around rigid policies, entrenched attitudes and scant statewide protections.
“There are issues of urgent need,” said Logan Casey, MAP policy researcher. “Economic insecurity, health issues, access to health care, housing …. Basic human needs that can’t always wait for the government process. In many cases, these are LGBTQ people of color taking care of each other. It’s not surprising they will take care of one another when government doesn’t.”
Among the data:
About 3.6 million LGBTQ adults, including over 525,000 transgender adults, live in the South, more than any other region in the U.S.
More than 40% of LGBTQ people in the South are people of color: 22% are Black; 16% are Latino.
The report shows that “LGBTQ people are everywhere. They permeate the American fabric and that includes the South,” MAP Executive Director Ineke Mushovic said. “LGBTQ Southerners have shown extra resilience. They are thinking differently about how to make change happen.”
The barriers LGBTQ people face in the South are well-documented in the report: There are higher rates of harassment, violence and unemployment.
Eight Southern states have targeted religious exemption laws that allow businesses and service providers to refuse to serve people if doing so would conflict with their religious beliefs.
LGBTQ people of color can face layered barbs of bias. For example, LGBTQ people of color are more than twice as likely as white LGBTQ people to experience discrimination because of their identity when interacting with police, the report shows.
While 23% of all LGBTQ Southerners have personally experienced physical violence related to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, that number rises to 33% among Black LGBTQ Southerners.
“It is a microcosm of what we are seeing in America as a whole. Racism is real, LGBTQ discrimination is real,”
Mushovic said. ”If you are an LGBTQ person of color you are living in two ways that allow people to discriminate against you.”
That is where the work of groups led by activists of color comes into play, Casey said: “They are inherently doing work that is racial justice work and LGBTQ equality work.”
Zakia McKensey is the founder and executive director of one of those groups, the Nationz Foundation in Richmond, Virginia, which targets HIV prevention and health and wellness issues for the LGBTQ community. “Our clients face discrimination in housing, some are near homelessness, some have substance abuse or mental health issues,” McKensey said. “You are dealing with all of these things, and if you aren’t affirmed in your identity, how can you take responsibility for your health? We are trying to deal with the small things so they can be healthier and sustain themselves.”
There are an array of programs, from support groups for transgender people and people living with HIV, to a text line service and a computer lab.
McKensey is especially proud of a mobile testing unit and pantry, which travels the region offering food, free HIV testing and other health materials.
The group is also working to erase stigmas still haunting those with HIV, she said, by reaching out to pastors and ministers.
“When we think of folks who are African American, messages out of church shape the way people think,” McKensey said. “When that narrative changes, it changes that stigma.”
McKensey, a Richmond native and longtime activist, has been lobbying for years before Virginia’s General Assembly. Those efforts along with others came to fruition this spring with the passage of a state law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, public accommodations and credit applications.
“To see these laws passed was like a holiday,” she said. “I felt recharged.”
Casey said it could be easy to chalk up this first for the South as a partisan victory. “But it’s the result of long years of work” by LGBTQ Southerners, particularly those of color. “They organized for years and built coalitions.”
Kayla Gore, co-founder of My Sistah’s House in Memphis, Tennessee, recently launched a GoFundMe campaign called “20 Tiny Homes” for Black and brown transgender women. The idea, Gore said, was born in the desperation of the coronavirus pandemic when so many transgender women seeking services were testing positive and had few options for quarantines.
Memphis has no shelters with dedicated spaces for LGBTQ people, and temporary space at My Sistah’s House, which provides housing and other services for trans and gender non-conforming people, was “at capacity,” she said. “It made us think: What can we do if this were to happen again? How can we be ready?”
The transgender housing campaign started with $400, but within a few days, it hit $17,000. Now, the fund is at $259,000 and still growing.
The homes, each 400 to 500 square feet, are being built on 30 acres and will provide occupants permanent ownership. The first three are expected to be completed by December.
Gore is keenly aware of the daily threats transgender women of color face, particularly in a state such as Tennessee, which MAP has ranked as a “negative” equality state: “My Blackness and my transness … That’s what I go into the world with every day – how all these identities could literally get me killed. And someone may not say my name after I die.”
Gore is hoping the state will see some transgender representation at the legislative level “so we can have change from the inside.”
Protesters gather at My Sistah’s House in Memphis, Tenn., during Pride Month.