By Britney Nesbit, Hometown Organizing Project Coordinator
Mississippi native, L.B. Bell, is an advocate for LGBT inclusivity in his community and across the South. He is committed to creating safer spaces in his community by resisting discriminatory, anti-LGBT laws like Mississippi’s House Bill 1523. L.B.is a father, husband, farmer, physician and founder of The Black Sheep’s Café & Speakeasy, and the Spectrum Center, Hattiesburg, Mississippi’s first LGBTQ Center.
In January 2012, L.B and his wife Sara, were one of the first couples to a participate in the WE DO Campaign, the Campaign for Southern Equality’s direct action initiative for marriage equality. Most recently, L.B is a member of the Trans Leadership Initiative (TLI), a project of the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE), that provides expanded funding, training and support to a cohort of trans leaders from across the South. L.B.’s vision for his community is to be able to make Hattiesburg, Mississippi a safehaven for all. CSE Community Organizer, Britney Nesbit, interviewed L.B. about his work and his experiences fighting for LGBTQ equality in the South.
Can you tell me story of how The Spectrum Center was founded?
The idea came about in 2014 when I was in the early stages of my transition. I really wanted to do something for the LGB and trans community. My initial plan was to the do something for homeless LGBT teens. That eventually developed into a community center in order to be able to reach more people. There had been other LGBT affirming groups in Hattiesburg, but the work was very fragmented and no one had a physical location of their own.
So when my wife, Sara and I were able to lock down a building, we wanted to make that space available to the community and allow folks to be a part of a unified movement. We named it the Spectrum Center because it is not just for the LGBT community but for allies as well.
What pushed you to focus mainly on LGBT youth upon founding the Spectrum Center?
I know what it’s like to be displaced from your home when you’re a teenager for being gay. That’s just a hard thing to forget. If you can relate, you don’t want anyone else to have to go through that. Just knowing that out of all the homeless youth, 40% are LGBT. That is pretty staggering. And kids and teenagers are one of the most vulnerable populations.
Could you talk about how your relationship with the Gender Benders, a South Carolina based, trans, gender non-conforming, LGBT and allies support group, came to be?
I was able to meet Ivy Hill and Fletcher Page, founders of the Gender Benders,, when I participated in CSE’s “We Do” campaign. I had been wanting to have a support group at the Spectrum Center and since Ivy and Fletcher had been doing such a good job with Gender Benders in South Carolina, I asked if we could just start a Mississippi chapter. We plan to continue learning from their leadership and one day be able to host a Gender Benders summer camp here.
Are there any other groups or organizations that you all partner with?
We have slowly but surely started to network with other local support systems. We do trans sensitivity trainings for the staff at the county youth and adult detention centers. We also do some educational work around Title XI with the University of Southern Mississippi. We have also networked with national organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood. I am currently working to build a network of LGBT affirming physicians and psychologists in particular for the trans community and for the LGBT community in general. It’s very difficult to find physicians who, even if they are not familiar with LGBT folks, are willing to try. I am also organizing efforts to advocate for a legal pathway to gender-marker change in Mississippi.
What has your experience as a TLI cohort member been like?
I am able to learn from the other members of the cohort and from CSE’s leadership and coordination of the Trans Leadership Initiative. Also, grant writing is probably one of the major things I have been working on. If didn’t have Chloe, Hometown Organizing Project Director, and a few other folks on the CSE team helping me with that, there’s no way that I’d be able to get it done. I can’t stand it. They’ve been a major motivator and influence in getting that accomplished.
What are some current barriers The Spectrum Center is facing right now?
Financial limitations are our biggest issue right now. If we could afford to have paid staff and not have to worry about keeping the doors open, the work the board want to do could get done.
A paid staff person, like an executive director, could the phone calls that need to be made, make the contacts and be the face of the Spectrum Center. We could have consistency versus the situation we have right now. We limited our volunteer, board member positions to one-year terms because the rate burnout is so high.