“Clothing!,” one participant shouted. “Leg hair!,” shouted another. Makeup. Accessories. Hip-to-shoulder ratio. Voice pitch. Shoes. Facial hair. Ivy and Fletcher recorded each of these responses on flip-chart pages stuck to the wall.

They had just posed the question “how do we gender each other?” to a room packed full with 76 social workers, educators, health-care providers and area service providers at the first OUT in the High Country conference held in Vilas, North Carolina. Vilas is a small town situated high up in the mountains of Western North Carolina just a few miles from the Tennessee line.

I traveled to the conference in my role as Hometown Organizing Project Director with the Campaign for Southern Equality, one of the conference sponsors. I was there with my colleagues Britney, Ivy and Fletcher, who were also participating in various capacities – including leading a Trans Sensitivity 101 training at the start of the day.fullsizeoutput_76

The plans for this gathering were brought to our attention at the 2016 LGBT* in the South conference, when the OUT in The High Country folks applied for a grant through the Southern Equality Fund. We were impressed by their ambition and over the next six months, provided a variety of resources and support to the planning committee.

The High Country – made up of Ashe, Avery and Watauga counties – is a predominantly rural area, with the exception of Boone, which is home to Appalachian State University. According to the most recent US Census data, the average total population of counties in the High Country is 32,538, of which 95 percent are white and 22 percent live in poverty. Indicative of the number of Trump signs we passed as we were arriving, this area is not known for its progressive leanings.

Yet, in this unlikely of places, we were attending a conference organized by a volunteer-led committee with a focus on raising awareness about LGBTQ issues, elevating the stories of local LGBTQ individuals, and starting a conversation with local professionals about how they can participate in creating a safer, more welcoming environment for their LGBTQ clients and neighbors.

The planning committee – a group of LGBTQ individuals and allies, including students, social workers, clergy, educators – collectively led a crowded room through a packed-full agenda that focused on active listening, learning and meeting people where they were. When Ivy and Fletcher led everyone in a game of Gender Jeopardy during their training, the energy and excitement in the room was palpable.

img_2169Those in attendance represented a broad spectrum of familiarity with and understanding of LGBTQ topics, vocabulary and concepts. The woman I was sitting next to had never been asked her pronouns before. Another attendee had his first experience using a urinal in an All Gender bathroom (an assumption I made based on his facial expression as he entered and saw me, female-identified, waiting in line for the stall). Other attendees were sharing stories about how they were attempting to raise their children outside of the gender box. Despite where folks came from, everyone was there because they understood that things needed to change, and that they wanted to be a part of that change.

Moments of tension arose when despair took hold. “There are no resources.” “I’m the only one doing this.” “We have no power.” “They told us no.” “The parents will never let that happen.” One attendee lamented that there was no existing group dedicated to supporting the local Trans community.

“But there are Trans people here in this room!,” Ivy proclaimed.

In fact, the gathering of folks in that room – filled with love, wisdom, and determination – was all the proof needed to demonstrate that change CAN, and already IS happening in the High Country.

The stories told at the OUT in the High Country – of the difficult and often times dangerous lived realities of LGBTQ community members, and the uphill battle for change – are not unique. In fact, this story might feel all too familiar for most communities across the South.

Of the 700 grassroots groups and many more individual leaders across the South doing inspiring and courageous work to make a difference in their local communities, the majority have access only to limited funding, are working within an actively hostile local climate, rely on the volunteer leadership of folks who are often working full-time jobs and supporting families, and experience isolation from the support of the larger LGBTQ movement.

Yet, in these same communities, there exists incredible resilience, creativity and resourcefulness.

If I learned one thing from OUT in the High Country, it’s that we already have what it takes. Everyday, local leadership is making significant strides with very little.Through our work across the region, we see examples of this all the time. Imagine what could be achieved if grassroots leadership had access to adequate funding and support.

This vision drives the Campaign for Southern Equality’s work to support Southern LGBTQ grassroots leadership through the Southern Equality Fund, a grantmaking initiative designed to direct resources to Southern LGBTQ grassroots groups and leaders that are isolated or under-resourced due to geography or demographics.

To everyone who came out for OUT in the High Country: thank you for letting us be a part of your journey. It was an honor and a privilege to stand behind your leadership and support your efforts. Also, your home and community are beautiful – thank you for sharing them with us!

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