South be­ing trans­formed by LGBTQ peo­ple of color

Bar­ri­ers in­clude vi­o­lence, laws and un­em­ploy­ment

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Su­san Miller

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.”

COUR­TESY OF TC CALDWELL

Protesters gather at My Sis­tah’s House in Mem­phis, Tenn., dur­ing Pride Month.

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