HRC’s New Campaign in the South Wants to Change “Hearts and Minds,” Not Much Else

The Human Rights Campaign announced an $8.5 million campaign over the weekend to advance “LGBT equality” in the South. The three-year campaign will specifically target the three states of Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, which offer no employment or housing protections for LGBT residents and prohibit same-sex marriage.

The initiative is called Project One America and their goal is to improve the lives of Southern LGBT folks by “changing hearts and minds, advancing enduring legal protections, and building more inclusive institutions for LGBT people from the church pew to the workplace.” HRC plans to open offices in each state and hire a total of 20 staff members to meet their goals.

In a region known for being socially conservative and heavily influenced by faith communities, HRC’s Project One America seems like a much-needed advancement for LGBT rights in the region. But is the HRC prepared to help the South, an area with a long history of struggles fueled by racism from colonization to slavery to the Civil Rights Movement?

HRC has been repeatedly criticized for not being intersectional in their work for queer justice that leaves trans communities, people of color, immigrants and poor folks out of their work. Brad Clark and Karin Quimby will spearhead the efforts of Project One America. Quimby will serve as deputy director of the initiative; you might remember her as the “HRC staffer” who controversially told a man at a pro-gay marriage rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court, that marriage equality “is not specifically a transgender issue.”

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Brad Clark (left) and Karin Quimby (right)

In November, the HRC announced that they would be working on an international scale with the help of the Paul E. Singer Foundation and the Daniel S. Loeb Family Foundation, organizations only interested in promoting marriage equality. Not to mention, Singer and Loeb make their money by being hedge fund managers and Singer makes his money thorough vulture funds, which basically  means that the money used for this new international campaign was made off the suffering of the developing countries HRC intend to help. And of course, HRC continues to laud corporations, like Wal-Mart, for having good working conditions for LGBT peoplewhen they actually don’t have good working conditions for any people.

Project One America’s ultimate goal is to unite the “two Americas” that stand now. “Right now, this country is deeply divided into two Americas — one where LGBT equality is nearly a reality and the other where LGBT people lack the most fundamental measures of equal citizenship,” HRC President and Arkansas native Chad Griffin said in a press release.

Yes, the HRC is right in pointing out a division across LGBT communities, but their experiences aren’t framed by just which states offer policy protections and which ones do not. The largest grassroots LGBTQ organizing group in the South, Southerners On New Ground says it best: “The primary division of an LGBTQ America is divided along lines of race, class and other oppression that criminalizes LGBTQ people of color, trans people, poor people and immigrants for being who they are.”

A SONG rally in Alabama/photo credit Angela Hill

A SONG rally in Alabama/photo credit Angela Hill

Let’s face it, based on their history and priorities, the HRC is often only interested in advancing issues of white cis elites. The South has the highest percentage of poverty, with the lowest minimum wage in the country and have extremely low levels of economic mobility, which deeply affects Southern queers. When it comes to affecting change for Southern LGBT folks, that means fighting institutions that contribute to poverty, institutionalized racism, transphobia and homophobia and empowering diverse LGBT Southerners to be visible and vocal in their communities. At the moment, that’s not exactly on the list of Project One America’s nine goals.

HRC is focused on “changing the hearts and minds” of people in the South. How do they intend to do that? Their plan isn’t clear on how exactly they will do this, but they intend to dialogue and build partnerships with “faith communities, communities of color, business communities, and conservatives.” It seems they are targeting these communities because they make up a large part of individuals who perpetuate an anti-queer culture in the South. I think it will be important going forward that they incorporate “communities of color” into all of their goals, rather than listing them as a separate issue to be tackled. It also seems like they’re perceiving communities of color and faith communities to be anti-LGBT and not accepting, an assumption which is flawed. I’m sure there needs to be more efforts in these communities to be more accepting but I think there are people of color and faith who are already working towards a better South.

The HRC will probably feel right at home dialoguing with business folks and conservatives, who are probably mostly white, straight cis people because they’re not far off from the kind of people they lobby in DC. How will they win over business owners and conservatives in the South? Which LGBT concerns will they bring up? That remains to be seen.

A lot of why HRC is focusing on these three states is because there are no basic non-discrimination protections in employment, housing or “public accommodations” such as hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other businesses open to the public. If HRC strives to make this happen, it will be good step in the right direction to change the climate in these three states. Again, we don’t know exactly how they will accomplish this but what they have outlined makes me skeptical of their intentions. The three offices will start with basic legislative action to help establish LGBT equality, said Michael Cole-Schwartz, HRC communications director to TakePart.  Besides that, they want to create a more inclusive workplace for LGBT people by “engaging small and medium-­sized businesses in new ways to show their support for LGBT employees and the LGBT community” and “increase participation in HRC’s Corporate Equality Index in these states.” Like I said before, they’ve lauded corporations like Wal-Mart for being great places of employment for LGBT workers, but these kinds of corporations are not concerned with their workers’ well-being and contribute to poverty by not paying their workers a living wage, giving them health benefits or job security.

When HRC moves in to Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, it would be beneficial to their campaign if they were there to support the LGBT residents and allies who have been organizing and striving to make change in their front yards. If they really want this to work, they need to use the resources of organizations who are already established to support the queer residents fighting for their livelihood in a complex place that they love.

“The South is an untapped, undeveloped area and one that is ready to really do interesting work. The truth of the matter is that we have been doing the work, the only difference between how the work plays out here is that it often doesn’t get a lot of public exposure. So you have people doing incredibly courageous and powerful work and have been often doing it at the intersections — working with their faith communities, working with the immigrant communities, working with people of color, and across lines of political affiliations,” said Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder/executive director of North Carolina-based Freedom Center for Social Justice, in an interview with Colorlines. Freedom Center for Social Justice is an example of a Southern organization that is helping fight poverty with their Trans* Employment Program.

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Southerners on New Ground is another organization working at the intersections of LGBT justice, most recently for immigrant rights. They joined the Southeast Immigrant Rights Network (SEIRN), a coalition working on immigration in the region, and working with the #not1more campaign under the leadership of NDLON (National Day Laborers Organizing Network) and GLAHR (Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights) and in partnership with Project South.

“SONG will continue to prioritize LGBTQ life and death issues, because when we look back at this time in history, we need to be able to say as an organization that we fought as hard as we could for the dignity and safety of not only the LGBTQ people most accepted by society but also those most attacked and criminalized. The leadership the South needs is already in the South; we need only that leadership to be resourced, supported, and amplified.”

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Associate Editor at Autostraddle. Dallas-based freelance writer with a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. Former Associate Editor at L Style G Style magazine, published by the Dallas Morning News and The Alcalde. Passionate about Mexican food, Selena and breakfast tacos.

Yvonne has written 27 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. Thumb up 15

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    “Project One America’s ultimate goal is to unite the “two Americas” that stands now. “Right now, this country is deeply divided into two Americas — one where LGBT equality is nearly a reality and the other where LGBT people lack the most fundamental measures of equal citizenship.”

    Oh hell nah, we don’t want any of your rhetorical binaries. When you have to use huge sweeping generalizations with muddy, vague language to create a binary, you know you’re trying to prove bullshit. The HRC’s strict adherence to single-issue politics is a huge red flag, since that’s essentially tail-chasing.

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    I am shocked that the HRC has been like this and… HA. HAHAHAHAHAA.

    *wipes tear* No no, sorry, I tried to keep a straight face. (You will note I suck at being straight anything) but are you kidding me?

    Great article!
    The HRC is a rich white hetcis gay man machine, ugh.

  3. Thumb up 7

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    Well…I’m not sure what is wrong with this specific project exactly. Sure, HRC is not a perfect organization by any means, but this article is really criticizing the past which keeps people from being optimistic about the potential for positive change. Project One America seems like something that is focusing on improving the future. Why can’t we just give it a chance to make a positive difference? Speaking as a queer from the south, personally, I think the south needs all the help it can get. I’m not going to be critical of the success or failure of anyone or any organization that is at least making the effort to improve the quality of life for LGBT people.

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      I think there’s definitely potential for this to be a good thing (or, at the very least, not a bad thing). I think it’ll be important for The HRC to work with and financially empower the organizations already doing good work in the region that Yvonne mentions, like Southerners on New Ground and The Trans* Employment Program. (and drops the association with wal-mart, who should never be held up as a good employer in any regard)

  4. Thumb up 1

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    I’ve lived in the Deep South all my life and I’ve never heard of SONG–exploring their site right now. I notice they don’t appear to have a presence in Mississippi, which, as I’m sure you guys know, desperately needs publicized activism, if not from the HRC. It can feel really alone out (down?) here. I thank the internet daily.

  5. Thumb up 6

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    This. I’m a queer person in the south and one of my concerns is why are they apparently creating a new initiative? I worry it may be fracturing and divisive (non-unified support, funds, campaigns, etc.) if it is not done with the support of groups already in place. Also, the HRC, imo, has not earned the right to be greeted with optimism and automatic good will by all members of the community. Talking about a better future while repeating the mistakes of the past does not inspire optimism. I also wonder about how their international outreach will work with existing organizations such as Amnesty International’s Outfront. I often worry that uncoordinated campaigns can lead to reduced efficiency and effectiveness. It does look like they will be doing work in some of the states not covered by SONG though.

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    Yvonne, I really think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about the need to work with, learn from, and empower the locals who have already been struggling with these issues and fighting for change. As we know, they are definitely there. I hate the white savior complex, which plays out not only in overseas advocacy and social justice work, but in our own nation as well. HRC is one of the worst perpetrators of that racist, classist, cissexist B.S. so I hope they have learned from their many mistakes and understand that they can’t just come “save all the gays” by bringing them gay marriage and white upper middle class ideals.

    I’m glad you mentioned SONG cause they are a bad ass organization that I love. Never heard of the Freedom Center for Social Justice but I like the sounds of their Trans* Employment Program a lot!

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    It’s taken me a while to realize why the tone of this type of article really bothers me (aside from the worries about discrimination etc.). Eventually I figured it was that I feel like the tone of this article is very cynical. It’s like it’s trying to say that the organization with the most money and recognition in the marriage equality and civil rights struggles is totally and completely horrible and misguided (because of the people who fund them and their focus on white cis gay men). But on the other hand, the “completely great” organizations like SONG (who seem like good people) are actually organizations that people haven’t really heard of and which are really limited in scale.

    I just feel like the article is trying to make things more simple than they are. Like, the HRC isn’t in any way perfect, but it is very powerful, and its power lets it reach very wide and present a broad if not particularly deep message. Sure, it’s really not perfect. Absolutely no partial solution to a problem this big is perfect. So maybe the HRC has focused primarily on marriage equality in the past, but now is starting to remember the importance of legal protections as well. So it’s improving, even if it’s slowly. Maybe it really is super focused on white cis gay men. It’s still managed to get many thousands of people to visibly support our civil rights via facebook. Knowing that support of LGBT civil rights is that popular is really important.

    Of course we still need organizations like SONG and all the other amazing local NGOs that are able to offer detailed and tailored support because they are local, and they are small. Those are wonderful and praiseworthy missions. They can make amazing differences and save the lives of people they’ve helped. But they usually don’t know how to run a legislative campaign or get legal protections passed because the reach of smaller groups has to be a little more focused. Both types of groups really have their own place, and they can benefit greatly from helping each other in order to share their strengths.

    I’m also pretty uncertain about this idea that poverty and immigration reform should be bundled into the same arguments for equal rights and marriage equality. Both are incredibly important issues, but if you try to argue and campaign for too many issues at once, you’ll not get any of them solved (check the Occupy movement).

  8. Thumb up 1

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    There are so many local groups in each state doing great work, too, who have been doing great work for decades. Not to be that woman, but why exactly do we need a bunch of people who probably wouldn’t know what cheesy grits or boudin balls are to tell our neighbors that they need to change?

    The local groups know what issues are faced by local LGBTQ community members: poverty, discrimination in the workplace, housing discrimination. As one group put it: we want marriage, we really do, but we also really don’t want to get fired. I think there is as difference in what issues are seen as important by the HRC and local groups. Because the HRC sees lgbt rights “nationally” they see same-sex marriage as an ~easy~ undertaking. It’s a sexy issue. Poverty and workplace discrimination are not sexy issues, but they are what local LGBTQ Louisianians are facing every day.

    Also, sadly, I’ve discovered that too many in national LGBTQ organizations think that the goal of southern LGBTQ community members is to leave–to get to the liberal north. But that’s not true for many of us. We love it here, we want to make it better, we don’t need to leave.

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    I do think it’s important for big-name groups like HRC to show involvement in the south, even if HRC is kind of crappy and not the queer rights org many queers would want. HRC is especially effective at getting straight folks on board, as Azra Noxx pointed out.

    I think we can hold HRC’s feet to the fire, or we can accept their help, or we can accept their help and try to make them more accountable to the community as a whole, but telling them they don’t have space in the movement isn’t super helpful.

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