CSE held two grassroots convenings in Mississippi and Alabama awarding $3500 through the Southern Equality Fund, and ramps up for the annual LGBT* in the South conference March 18-20 in Asheville, North Carolina.

We held our first grassroots convening at The Spectrum Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It was close-quarters, we broke bread together huddled around brightly-covered tables, and the small center was buzzing with excitement and comradery. Folks had come from Jackson to Mobile, and the small cities and towns in-between. Sara and LB, one of the couples that participated in the WE DO Campaign and the co-founders of the Spectrum Center, Hattiesburg’s only LGBT center, were our fabulous hosts. It was awe-inspiring to see how far the center had come in only a year. They opened in 2014, and a year later were offering weekly programming, HIV/AIDS testing and hosting Hattiesburg’s first ever Pride celebration.

This time, like countless others, we were humbled by the incredible strength and leadership of folks like Sara and LB, who are making real change happen in their home towns. We felt it then, and we’re certain now, that the most crucial work going forward in the fight for LGBT equality will be led by LGBT folks in small cities, towns and rural areas across the South.

3 in 10 LGBT adults live in the South – a higher number of LGBT adults than any other region – but the South only receives a mere 8 percent of domestic LGBT funding each year, the majority of which goes to major metropolitan areas like Dallas, TX and Atlanta, GA. The majority of groups supporting LGBT people in the South are significantly underresourced with limited financial resources – almost half of the 750 LGBT organizations in the South have only one or zero paid fulltime staff.

Through the Hometown Organizing Project (HOP), CSE directly confronts these structural challenges and works to elevate the leadership of grassroots LGBT leaders in small cities, towns and rural areas. As a regional LGBT organization, with access to institutional resources and larger funding pools, we are committed to directing as much funding and resources as possible to folks on the frontlines who are fighting daily for basic protections and equal access to services in the “unwinnable” places across the South.

This fall, we took HOP on the road to host one-day grassroots convenings in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Birmingham, Alabama. We worked with local planning teams to choose themes that were top priorities in their communities and recruited local organizers and service providers to facilitate workshops and trainings. At each convening, we hosted a round of the Southern Equality Fund, awarding a total of $3,500 in micro-grants to 7 different groups and individuals.

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The #LGBTSouth convening in Hattiesburg, MS – October 9 focused on LGBT health and well-being and featured workshops about trans* resources, access to healthcare protections and understanding the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the Gulf Coast. LGBT Southerners face alarming health disparities and half of all new HIV infections occur in the South, with African-American gay and bisexual men being at five times the risk of infection than their white counterparts.

Through the Southern Equality Fund, we awarded $500 each to the following initiatives:

  • AIDS Alabama South – Mobile, AL: Coordinating an outreach campaign to change how the general public perceives HIV and HIV testing and to destigmatize the LGBT community associated with HIV. Ads will focus on increasing awareness about who should get tested, how to get tested, advancements in treatment and prognosis, and encouraging greater Mobile to help eradicate HIV by getting free HIV testing at AIDS Alabama South and encouraging others to get tested.
  • AIDS Services Coalition – Hattiesburg, MS: Expanding outreach efforts to the LGBT HIV+ community by organizing activities and assisting group members with expenses related to attending their bi-monthly Positive Living Support Group.
  • Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Center – Gulfport, MS: Building on collaborations and partnerships with other groups and organizations across the state, including a possible collaboration with the state’s Department of Health, to increase the number of participants in Mississippi’s PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis program) through a coordinated outreach campaign.

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The #LGBTSouth convening in Birmingham, AL – November 14, focused on intersectionality and collaboration and featured workshops about cultural humility, organizing in multicultural coalitions and the intersections of racial justice and LGBT rights. Compared to other regions, LGBT Southerners are more likely to be people of color, have low incomes, and be raising children. Therefore, LGBT equality is inherently bound to other social justice movements including: economic justice, racial justice, reproductive rights and immigrant rights.

Through the Southern Equality Fund, we awarded $500 each to the following initiatives:

  • EqualityMobile.org (work in progress) – Mobile, AL: Launch a new website to provide an online platform for local LGBT community engagement and action that raises awareness and supports access to existing resources and upcoming events; featuring a community calendar, links to local, regional and national resources, and latest news.
  • NEAL Together, Inc. – Gadsden, AL: Changing people’s perceptions, acceptance and awareness of LGBTQ people living with HIV/AIDS through monthly community educational sessions, collaboration with local colleges to increase awareness and build resources, and by influencing local and state legislation to support inclusive bills.
  • The Change Project’s “Our Voices Matter”Birmingham, AL: Collaborating with organizations across all Southern states—in both large cities and rural communities—to host story collecting events and launching a website with 100 unique stories from queer and trans* individuals, diverse in age, race, gender identity, and socioeconomic status, living in underrepresented communities across the Southeast.
  • TAKE Peer Group (Trans* Advocates Knowledgable Empowering) – Birmingham, AL:Hosting a holiday gala in Birmingham to bring together transgender women of color with the LGBTQ+ and allied community to increase trans visibility and to empower trans women of color to organize an event for themselves and their community.

We are thrilled to be able to support these groups and are excited to witness the impact of these projects as they take shape and grow. CSE will keep expanding our investment in groups, organizations and individuals like these through the Southern Equality Fund, grassroots convenings and our annual LGBT* in the South Conference.

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The conference, which will take place March 18-20, 2016 in Asheville, NC, brings together hundreds of grassroots organizers and advocates from across the South to learn, share skills, build strategies and connect. We will host another round of the Southern Equality Fund for conference attendees.

Registration for the conference is open now through February 21, 2016.

To find out more about the Southern Equality Fund or to learn more about the annual LGBT* in the South conference and #LGBTSouth grassroots convenings, visit: www.lgbtinthesouth.com.

*All of the statistics cited in this blog were taken from “Out in the South Part 3: The Opportunities,” published by Funders for LGBTQ Issues, November 2015