The nation’s largest gay rights advocacy group is putting down roots in the South.
Last week, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) announced it will spend $8.5 million over the next three years to set up permanent offices and staff in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi. HRC’s goal is to expand social and legal protections in those states for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) residents.
HRC says the program, called Project One America, is targeting Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi because they lack sexual orientation nondiscrimination laws in employment, housing, and public accommodations, and because all three states constitutionally define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. They blame some of this on lack of funding, citing a study that found that grant funding for every LGBT adult in the Northeast in 2011-2012 was $10.10, compared to $1.71 in the South.
Project One America’s 20 full-time, local staff members will be tasked with nine launch goals, including encouraging more LGBT people to come out publicly and raising the visibility of LGBT issues, as well as building partnerships with “faith communities, communities of color, business communities, and conservatives.” Project One America also hopes to expand anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation as a protected class.
HRC is not alone in targeting southern conservative states. Tim Gill, a Colorado philanthropist and gay-rights activist who was instrumental in turning the tide of public opinion in Colorado, says his foundation is investing $25 million into other conservative-leaning states in the next five years, according to The New York Times.
“We can’t allow two distinct gay Americas to exist,” Gill told the Times. “Everybody should have the same rights and protections regardless of where they were born and where they live.” The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, as well as the ACLU are also spreading their efforts to the South, according to the same article.
But many conservatives see this as an attack on their beliefs, said Jerry Cox, the director of the Arkansas Family Council. The group sponsored the Arkansas Marriage Amendment that passed with 75 percent of the vote in 2004.
“I would differ with their assessment of the South,” he said.“I believe most people in Arkansas formed their opinions about homosexuality based on their Christian faith.”
He said trying to persuade people about LGBT issues is “really trying to get them to change what for some people is a deep-seated religious conviction that homosexuality is wrong.”
Cox says his organization will “continue doing what we’ve always done: promote traditional marriage and talk about it being the gold standard for husband and wife relationships and child rearing.” He also said churches can be a game changer. “Will the people who stand in the pulpits boldly proclaim a biblical view of human sexuality or will they be silent?”