Life is hard for LGBTQ kids everywhere, but particularly in the South. Every year, thousands of young Southerners are disowned by their families, and that’s tragic: It’s neither civil nor Southern. But such kids can find family again, thanks to organizations around the South that have stepped in to provide the unconditional love that’s lacking back home. Today, Amelia Hess visits four organizations — from Texas to North Carolina — that fight with stubborn, Southern ferocity to help LGBTQ kids lead productive, happy lives.
Written by Amelia Hess | Design and Illustration by Gentleman
Southerners believe in family. At least, that’s what we tell each other.
For hundreds of years, Southern communities have been shaped by traditions that bring people together. A rich history of storytelling has allowed Southerners to explore their past, pass along values to younger generations, and bring change to their communities. Southern identity is also shaped by a fierce loyalty to the land. For generations, the South and its people have also shown perseverance through resistance.
At their core, Southerners are defined by a fierce loyalty to family. This bond is unwavering and — supposedly — unconditional. But time and again, sexual and gender identity tear Southern families apart.
Thousands of young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer are kicked out of the house every year by their families. LGBTQ youth make up an estimated 40 percent of the total homeless youth population.The consequences of family rejection and discrimination are often deadly.
Last year, the federal government’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Study asked two new questions in its examination of over 100 health behaviors: How do students identify themselves sexually? And what is the sexual identity of those with whom they had sexual contact? This allowed the Centers for Disease Control, for the first time ever, to estimate the number of high-school-age students who are not heterosexual. (The study asks about sexual identity, but does not ask teenagers to discuss their gender identities.)
Says the study's summary: "Although the majority of the 16,067,000 students estimated to be attending public and private schools in grades 9–12 nationwide in 2015 are heterosexual, this report indicates that approximately 321,000 are gay or lesbian, 964,000 are bisexual, and 514,000 are not sure of their sexual identity." That means more than 11 percent of American high-school students — almost 1.8 million — are in the "sexual minority," to use the CDC's terminology. And the percentages remain constant, according to the CDC, regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomics, and geography.
The human toll of being in the sexual minority is dramatic. More than 40 percent of sexual-minority students reported they had seriously considered suicide, and 29 percent of them had actually attempted to kill themselves in the 12 months before taking the survey. These young people were three times more likely than straight students to be raped. At least a third have experienced bullying on school property and have skipped school at higher than average rates because they do not feel safe. LGBTQ-identifying youth are twice as likely as students who identify as heterosexual to be threatened or injured with a weapon on school property.
It’s clear from the data that LGBTQ youth in the United States face disproportionate discrimination and violence.
Following the presidential race, traffic has increased exponentially to LGBTQ hotlines such as the Trevor Hotline and the Trans Lifeline. Additionally, mental-health crises among LGBTQ youth have increased throughout the United States. Those who are most vulnerable have been left feeling isolated, and fearful for their safety.
But oddly enough, Southern identity may be a saving grace for young LGBTQ people here. For decades now, organizations all around the South have done something remarkable: When young LGBTQ people are rejected by the families they were born into, these organizations step into the breach. If you’re kicked out of your family because of your sexual identity, organizations such as Alabama’s Magic City Acceptance Center uphold the Southern value of family first. It’s their job to help LGBTQ kids find new families, families of choice, and find new sources of the support to get the love that all families are supposed to provide.
The South is a constantly evolving place where communities understand the consequences of turning their backs on one another and the power of unity. Southern LGBTQ organizations have been pivotal in leading conversations and movements against issues of discrimination, violence and isolation of LGBTQ people.
Today, we visit four such organizations: from the mountains of Appalachia to east Texas.
“The South does family really well…. Everybody knows everybody's family,” Amanda Keller, director of LGBTQ Programs and the Magic City Acceptance Center says.
For more than 30 years, the Magic City Acceptance Center has been the place where young LGBTQ Alabamians come to build new families — families of choice — after being abandoned by their own.
Chosen family is defined as a group of people who intentionally provide each other with emotional support and love, even if they are not biologically related. For many LGBTQ Southern kids, access to a chosen family is essential, especially when they experience discrimination and exclusion from their communities. The Magic City Acceptance Center in Birmingham, Alabama, helps LGBTQ youth create that sense of family. This resource is especially important for young people who experience discrimination at school or at home.
“I feel that our youth bring that on,” Keller says. “They're really comfortable with each other. They span out and know each other's friends. They're really good about building these systems of family and community with each other.”
The Magic City Acceptance Center began as an LGBTQ support and education branch of Birmingham AIDS Outreach. Birmingham AIDS Outreach has helped people with HIV in Birmingham for more than 30 years. In 2012, BAO expanded its outreach to include LGBTQ people, regardless of their HIV status. Keller says BAO’s longtime support by the city’s broader LGBTQ community prompted BAO to broaden its support services.
To create the Acceptance Center, BAO applied for grants to provide youth programs, based on the fact that nationally — and particularly in the South — the organization had noticed increasing HIV infection rates in LGBTQ people ages 13 to 24.
“You can't reach them in bars,” Keller says. “We can't get into schools to provide them comprehensive sex ed, so we decided we’d just do it ourselves, and open a building.”
In 2014, the Magic City Acceptance Center finally opened its doors to the LGBTQ youth of Alabama. Originally, the organization offered STI testing, education, and a monthly movie night. Today, MCAC is open at least three nights a week and serves more than 250 young people.
“We even have some youth who are driving from over an hour away just to come to our programs,” Keller says.
Both newcomers and oldtimers flock each week to drop-in hours, the highest attended program provided by the Magic City Acceptance Center. Drop-in hours serve as a creative environment where kids get free, confidential testing for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, as well as a place to socialize, watch movies, and take naps. During the school year, tutoring is also offered.
Says Magic City Acceptance Center Youth Outreach Coordinator Lauren Jacobs: “They come in the door, and immediately launch into, ‘This thing happened to me today, and I’m going to talk about it now.’ Or, ‘This horrible thing happened in the news.' It happens really organically. We can all go, ‘Oh man, that sucks.’ That’s how it gets handled.”
And as Keller and other MCAC staff have found their way over the last three years, they’ve found themselves turning increasingly toward the Southern storytelling tradition.
“I think about storytelling and sharing feelings,” Jacobs says. “That’s been really helpful in terms of us having something to follow. We’re really good at putting their voices at the forefront, and trying to tell their stories. That’s totally a Southern thing.”
As a result of this open dynamic, nothing is ever put on the Magic City Acceptance Center schedule without first having a sense of why it is needed, and who wants it. For instance, the organization hosted a showing of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” film because the kids decided they wanted to drink lemonade while watching the visual album, to foster discussion of topics they cared about.
The MCAC also provides a name-change clinic for the trans community. This clinic helps trans people sort through all the issues — including the legal and professional ones — that come with a gender change: everything from legal names changes to how to present one’s self in public. Often, trans people are afraid to look for jobs or cannot get jobs because their legal documents don’t match their chosen names. This resource is also important for safety, because violence is committed against trans people at much higher rates. Mismatching names and genders on IDs can make trans individuals even more vulnerable.
Over the MCAC’s two years of operation, Keller says, the local community’s response has been overwhelmingly supportive. “Any time we talk about [the organization], and we talk about it very openly people are just supportive and polite,” Keller says. “I think Birmingham is a lot more progressive than a lot of people think.” The organization has never received threats.
But Jacobs says the MCAC’s positive experience does not reflect that of many LGBTQ youth in the South.
“I’m a queer, black woman in Alabama, and nothing bad has happened to me,” she says. “I want to tell that story, but at the same time, I know bad things do happen in the South. I don’t want to gloss over that, but there is importance in the fact that nothing heinous has happened to us. How do we talk about that, while acknowledging that our youth are running into problems on an individual basis, and are facing discrimination and harassment, but at the same time being super proud of our greater community that nothing bad has happened?”
MCAC hopes to build on its use of distinctly Southern language and values to foster togetherness and build supportive communities where LGBTQ kids can thrive.
“The word y’all really helps in organizing,” Jacobs says. “It’s just such a unifying word. It brings everybody together. It feels like a common identity.”
Kate Shapiro, the membership director of the Atlanta-based Southerners on New Ground, or SONG, says the formation of her organization traces back to a particular incident 24 years ago.
In 1993, when Creating Change, the largest LGBTQ conference in the country, was first scheduled for a Southern location — Durham, North Carolina — its organizers at the Washington-based National LGBTQ Task Force questioned whether attendees would be safe in the South.
Shapiro says those questions betrayed “a particular anti-Southern bias, as if there's not been LGBTQ people living and loving in Durham and the whole region forever, for millennia.”
Those perceptions changed quickly, though, when Nobel Prize nominee and longtime North Carolina social-justice advocate Mandy Carter stepped in and became one of six founders of SONG, which was formed at that 1993 conference.
“Our different founders came out of different political work — from anti-Klan organizing, the women's movement, racial justice — and they sat down together at this conference,” Shapiro says. The founders, she says, wanted SONG to be an organization that could bring together the the mainstream Civil Rights Movement “around questions of gender and homophobia and sexuality” and to focus the mainstream gay and lesbian movement on “questions of racial justice and economic justice.” It was a landmark moment in the history of social justice in the South.
“That’s part of our vision…that all of us could be able to stay in our homes, stay in our towns as we are, and not feel like we have to go to New York, or San Francisco, or Chicago to be able to live our full lives,” Shapiro says.
SONG focuses on the liberation of LGBTQ Southerners across all lines of race, class, age, and ability. The organization, whose work spreads across the entire region, is the largest grassroots LGBTQ membership-based organization in the South. It’s been based in Atlanta for the past six years.
Seven years ago, SONG chose to become a membership-based organization — a move designed to give it the ability to exercise more power and influence on political issues. Today, SONG has more than 5,000 active members.
“We need to be able to say, ‘This is the number of people that we have that you need to answer to,' because we understand in this political climate that the power that we have is the power of numbers,” Shapiro says.
SONG members define the organization as a political home, Shapiro says: “A place where we want to be able to connect…break this isolation that kills many of our people, and be able to unite people with shared values...to fortify and strengthen ourselves so that we can fight around life-and-death LGBTQ issues.”
The organization engages its network by connecting LGBTQ communities throughout the South through direct action, community organizing, and lobbying campaigns. The organization also works on local, regional, and national levels to better align itself with communities that share its vision and experiences.
“SONG has always been like a kinship network, a network of LGBTQ, primarily people of color, who are working on the front lines of racial and economic injustice and queer issues across the South,” Shapiro says.
SONG’s current campaign, "Free From Fear," reinforces the organization’s work to create a South where all LGBTQ people, people of color and immigrants can live full lives in their communities without fear. The campaign is built on the need for local action in response to a direct question: “What could be born in our communities if LGBTQ people and people of color were not afraid to walk our streets, lead in our towns, and fully lean into our own bodies and lives?”
While strategies vary locally, all Free From Fear campaigns contribute to shifting the climate of fear, violence, racism and homophobia in Southern communities.
“We can’t actually have a one-size-fits-all strategy, but what we can do is have an overall vision and an overall call of building a South free from fear, and then be able to develop campaigns that are relevant to local demands,” Shapiro says.
Each summer, SONG hosts Gay-cation, a week-long camp for the SONG family to gather, relax, and swap stories and strategies. Through cooking, getting to know one another, and programming, the organization draws upon the best of Southern traditions to bring the LGBTQ community together.
“The South is a really profoundly powerful place,” Shapiro says. “It’s a shifting place. We know what it takes in terms of kinship to be able to support each other and being able to survive. We know that we can't afford to turn our backs on each other. We know that we have a long tradition of storytelling, breaking bread, being in a community with each other, and enjoying each other. We live in a blood-soaked region, historically and currently.”
But SONG, she says, is filled with “folks in the South (who) are more willing to grapple with and confront and address the legacy of chattel slavery (and) the generational resiliency that comes out of having overcome and fought against chattel slavery."
Youth OUTright was founded in the mountains of North Carolina after the LGBTQ community in Asheville noticed a lack of programming for LGBTQ young people, who experience discrimination and hate crimes in the community. Youth OUTright’s first meeting was held in 2009 but the organization later increased programs following LGBTQ youth suicides in the area.
“We want to ensure that our youth have all of the tools and knowledge available to become responsible citizens in the world,” says Laurie Pitts, Youth OUTRight’s programs director. “We want them to become successful and happy, and feel safe doing it.”
Last year, the North Carolina state legislature passed House Bill 2 (HB2), a law which prohibits members of the trans community from bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological gender in public buildings. HB2 remains a political football in North Carolina, and many young, LGBTQ North Carolinians feel a lot of hostility from their government and their communities.
“We do have youth who love this area enough to be willing to fight for it…to try to change the experiences of other queer youth in this area,” Pitts says. Many North Carolinians remain hopeful, with the state’s recent election of Roy Cooper as governor, that the legislation will be reversed.
About 85 percent of the young people who attend Youth OUTright discussion groups identify somewhere on the transgender spectrum and are therefore negatively impacted by HB2 on a daily basis. In addition to causing harmful emotional consequences, preventing the trans community from the bathrooms in which they feel comfortable can lead to detrimental health repercussions, such as recurrent uterine tract infections and kidney damage.
Although HB2 reinforces the idea, among LGBTQ young people, that the only way to exist in the South is merely to survive, before escaping escaping the region, Youth OUTright provides a reason to stay by giving these youths vital insight into the history of Southern LGBTQ perseverance.
“They don’t get [LGBTQ history] from anywhere else in the area,” Pitts says. “They learn about the overall resiliency of queer folks in the south. That helps propel them to work harder to make this area what they know it can be.”
Because the organization is still relatively small, Youth OUTright’s LGBTQ main youth group meeting in Asheville is currently held in a church. This location can be a deterrent for youth who have experienced discrimination in religious spaces. However, the discrete location also provides a way for LGBTQ youth to gather without coming out to family and friends.
“We do have some youth who come to us, and their parents just think they’re going to a church youth group,” Pitts says. “That way they still get to access services without having to come out to their parents before they’re ready.”
While the organization is based in Asheville, Youth OUTright is constantly looking to expand into as many communities as possible throughout Western North Carolina, where the organization is dictated by location and local needs. In rural areas of North Carolina, very few resources exist for LGBTQ youth, particularly if they are questioning their identity or looking for the language to define themselves. It is especially difficult for kids to research LGBTQ services at home, in schools, or libraries because Youth OUTright’s website is often blocked.
“When we’re looking at our website, the word ‘sexuality’ comes up, so filters automatically block it,” Pitts says. “It’s difficult for our youth to even know what services are there, particularly rural youth.”
To get to Youth OUTright’s meetings in rural communities, many kids who want to attend must travel by foot up winding, mountainous roads to reach the meeting places.
“We had youth who wanted to be there, who needed to feel that kind of community so much that they walked to the meeting,” Pitts says. In the rural South, communities are spread out, and transportation poses a problem for many LBGTQ young people. To counteract issues of accessibility to services in rural areas, Youth OUTright has been starting groups in multiple counties.
The first impact survey released by YO showed that 70 percent of youth who attended YO meetings felt increased self-confidence, as well as a sense of belonging and community.
“They call it home, because that is where they go to recharge, relax, laugh a little, and learn about their community,” Pitts says.
Particularly in the South, religion plays a vital role in community and family life. For LGBTQ youth raised in religious households, it is often difficult to find supportive houses of worship.
“Church becomes part of your family and can be a source of anxiety when youth are thinking about the coming-out process and who, and how and when to do that,” Pitts says. “They’re always really scared about the opinions of folks they’ve grown up with in a religious institution. Most of our youth have grown up hearing messages telling them that they’re not OK within houses of worship.” Youth Outright attempts to offset this message by providing programming that encompasses issues of spirituality.
Each year Youth OUTright holds a queer clergy panel to counteract issues of discrimination in houses of worship. During one such panel, kids were asked to raise their hands if they had ever been impacted negatively by a religious institution.
“Every youth in the room had their hand up,” Pitts says.
Youth OUTright also works alongside mental-health providers on a Cherokee reservation to create new LGBTQ youth support systems.
LBGTQ youth turn to Youth OUTright for a myriad of reasons. Some come because they do not have a sense of community outside of the organization, others to spend time with friends, still others to find a support system. The youth are welcome to stay involved as long as need be. Youth OUTRight’s ultimate goal, however, is to make the South safe for all LGBTQ youth.
“Do we have youth who really just sort of want to bolt as soon as they can? Absolutely,” Pitts says. “But I think the overall belief is that, ‘This is my home, and I want to protect it.’ For the most part, we're not HB2. We're not restrictive houses of worship. There are lots of places and people in the South who really want to work to create a better environment for queer youth. It's just about making sure that they have opportunities to do that.”
Each time a newcomer joins Austin’s Out Youth, Katheryn Gonzales, operations and programs director of Out Youth, introduces the palpable sense of family that LGBTQ youth have built within the organization.
“This is your first time at Out Youth,” Gonzales says. “You may come back a thousand times, or you may never come back again, but that doesn't change the fact that you’re part of this family now. A family with over 10,000 members, and if you ever need anything, you can call us because that’s what family does for each other.”
Out Youth began in living rooms across Austin in 1990, after two graduate students studying social work at the University of Texas researched LGBTQ youth and how to provide them with support in the local community. They determined the best way to empower the youth was to form peer-facilitated discussion groups, where kids could exchange stories and create a sense of community. Due to a lack of funding, and a desire to ensure the safety and privacy of the LGBTQ involved, Out Youth relied on the homes of community members for gathering places. To spread the word, the organization created fliers and slipped them in books they thought LGBTQ youth might look at in the library, such as the pages of dictionaries with the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Maintaining the safety and protection of LGBTQ youth has always been Out Youth’s top priority, so for its first two decades the organization kept as low a profile as possible.
“You had to call a phone number to get our physical address, and had to prove that you were not somebody who wanted to do us harm,” Gonzales says.
Over time, the organization has come to an understanding that in order to do their youth justice and provide safety beyond the walls of Out Youth, the organization must do work in the community to make` the community safer.
“At the end of the day, all we can do is share our stories as openly and honestly as possible in a way that, at the same time, keeps us safe,” Gonzales says.
Currently, Out Youth offers a variety of services — from family counseling, to support groups, even to a trans social that allows trans youth to meet and talk with trans adults. However, for many of the attending youth, the most important service Out Youth provides is a sense of community. The organization allows LGBTQ youth to experience familial bonds and values, even if their own families are not supportive.
“In many ways, [Out Youth is] the first home that our youth [have] ever known,” Gonzales says. “A place where they're loved, acknowledged, and accepted for exactly who they are, no matter how many times that changes. By extension, they become part of a second family.
Moving forward, Out Youth is adding a variety of new programs, including outreach to LGBTQ youth of color and creating resources for teachers. If pending grants come through, the organization will also add a formal case-management function for 18- to 23-year-olds, to help match them with permanent supportive housing and provide them with job-related skills and education as they move into into adulthood.
The organization will also start two custom Girl Scout troops, in partnership with Girl Scouts in Central Texas. The organization’s data shows that LGBTQ kids are coming out younger and younger, especially in regard to gender identity. “As long as the person identifies as a girl, they can participate,” Gonzales says.
Although Texas as yet has no legislation equivalent to North Carolina’s HB2, Gonzales says many youth still feel unsafe using the restroom or face harassment when they try.
“I've got a youth who has…irrecoverable bladder damage from chronic and recurring UTI’s because they are trans-identified and deathly afraid of using the restroom at school,” Gonzales says.
While organizations such as Out Youth do not have the power to change the hearts or minds of Southern communities overnight, they do find strength in sharing their stories. Out Youth works with Equality Texas to train young people to lobby and advocate, both within the organization and during the Texas legislative session. LGBTQ youth go to the capitol to speak to elected state representatives about the impacts of anti-LGBTQ legislation.
“There is this kind of uniquely Southern stubbornness,” Gonzales says. “Almost this ‘bless your heart’ mentality of, you can say all these awful things about me and you may desperately want all the LGBTQ people that live in Texas to just move to California, but this is my home too, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Good, old-fashioned Southern stubbornness continued to drive these four organizations as reports of violence and bullying against LGBTQ youth increased after November’s election. They stubbornly kept offering love, help, and support.
“We wanted them to know that we were still there for them, that Out Youth is not going anywhere, and convey to them that we cannot promise to protect them 24/7, but that as a family, we weren’t splitting up, we weren't going anywhere, and we would walk through this together,” Gonzales says. “The day after the election, we had a youth threatened at knifepoint,” Gonzales says. “We had Hispanic and Latino students told to go back to where they came from (...) and we’ve had black youth told that they would soon be swinging from trees.”
The Magic City Acceptance Center’s Amanda Keller says many LGBTQ young folks grew up under the Obama administration, and that the transition of power marks the first time they have felt unsafe and unsupported by national leaders. Local governments’ lack of action doesn’t help.
“We have definitely seen a surge in suicidal ideation, fear, and anxiety in particular have been through the roof with our youth,” Keller says. This fear has deeply affected the LGBTQ community, leading to widespread mental-health crises. However, for the MCAC, the community’s responses have been overwhelmingly positive and engaging. Emails, letters, calls and donations poured in from people offering support. One organization in California sent 60 handmade cards with affirming messages written on them. Kids at MCAC “could just grab a card and take it home and have something that would lift them up and make them feel better when they were having a hard day or a difficult moment,” Keller says.
Moving forward, all four of these organizations are responding with increased advocacy, community engagement, and education.
“It’s up to us to show our youth,” Gonzales says. “To give them an example of what you do in the face of adversity, knowing that it’s gonna be hard, but also knowing that we’re not going to just sit back and let this happen.”