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The LGBTQ+ community in North Carolina among Covid, discrimination laws and the struggle for affirming healthcare. An interview with Adam Polaski, from Campaign for Southern Equality.
Let’s start talking about your story. How did you come to this job?
I started in 2012 for Freedom to Marry, which is a national LGBT group that fought for marriage equality. We've worked in states and at the federal level, I was there for about three or four years. And then I shifted over to a group called Freedom for All Americans, which works to protect people from discrimination by passing inclusive nondiscrimination laws at the state, local and federal level. Through both, I got to know the Campaign for Southern Equality, which is doing heroic work all across the South for LGBTQ+ people. It was 2013. I was working for Freedom to Marry at the time, and they basically helped gay and lesbian couples across the south trying to get marriage licenses. The way they did that was by requesting marriage licenses at county offices knowing full well that they would be denied. And the goal was to illustrate that feeling of discrimination and showcase the actual harm being done. I got to know the Campaign through that, and I started doing some graphic design for them. And then that shifted into being on their team as Communication Director.
I'm from the Philadelphia area originally. But the group is based here in Asheville, North Carolina, although we work all across the South. I've been in Asheville for about two years now. It's been great to better understand the South and better understand the amazing organizing happening all across despite oppressive legislatures who are passing discriminating bills. But there's a really vibrant queer community here in every part of the South. And so it's been fun to be a part of that.
Is Asheville considered urban area, or is it more rural?
That's a good question. So, Asheville is the home base for the Campaign for Southern Equality. It's a progressive little town. I think we're like the 10th or 11th biggest city in the state of North Carolina. So we're somewhere in between, mixed rural and urban. We're sort of a fun little mountain town and rapidly growing. It's been great to get to know the state of North Carolina more and see that we have LGBTQ+ people who are really doing great work from big cities like Raleigh and Durham to small towns like Hillsborough to mid-sized cities like Asheville.
What emerged from other interviews is the often difficult relationship between the community and healthcare. In 2019 you released the Southern LGBTQ Health Survey. What were the most important findings? And, since it was done pre-COVID, how did the pandemic change things?
The health survey that we did in 2019 was done over the largest sample of LGBTQ+ southerners ever. And the survey found that people are really struggling. We tracked some disproportionate disparities around people who feel that they can't get fair access to health care in their hometown, of people who feel that they are treated differently because they're LGBTQ+. So the big conclusion, I think, is that there are queer people who live in the South, a third of all LGBTQ+ people living in the United States, who are really experiencing a lack of services when it comes to inclusive and affirming health care. So, a transgender person could feel like there isn't an affirming place for them to go, even for just basic health care, let alone gender affirming care, like hormone therapy, or anything like that. It's important that people can access affirming health care in their hometown without leaving or having to drive many miles. So, that survey helped us highlight that there's a real lack of affirming providers in the region. That informs the work we do within our community. We provide trainings to clinics, about how to be trans affirming, about services that they can provide that at the moment they're actively offering. And, hopefully, through that program, we'll be able to transform the landscape of access for LGBTQ+ people across the region.
So how has COVID affected the community in the South? What has been your response to the crisis?
When COVID hit in March of 2020, we knew right away that the people who were queer in the South would be impacted disproportionately. Surveys showed us already that people were feeling isolated, they had higher levels of depression and anxiety. So, of course, the pandemic and social distancing exacerbated existing problems. Our response right away was to launch a bunch of virtual community spaces for people to gather. We had a support group, some programms around skills and arts, about being able to cut your own hair, just things like that, things that felt affirming and essentially provided a space for queer people in the South to gather.
The second thing we knew was that people in the community were really struggling with being able to make ends meet. So we had a program called the Southern Equality Fund that for a few years has been focused on providing micro-grants to groups that are maybe starting their first Pride event, or creating an affirming space for queer seniors or youth. We also shifted the scope of the program to provide individual grants for emergency assistance. We offer grants of $100, $250 from 2021, to help pay for things like groceries, or access to mental health care, medication or to help people who were laid off from their jobs. Through this people can have access to some extra funding and extra support to get through the crisis.
In the United States almost 40% of homeless youths identify as LGBTQ+. Queer homeless people disproportionately struggle, because of a lot of things. They could come out to their families, but the family is not accepting and so the person has no other choice but to leave their home, or sometimes they are outright kicked out of their homes because they're queer or trans. And so it definitely is an important crisis to think about and take action on. I'm really grateful that there are a lot of organizations doing awesome work there. It's one of the most fundamental human rights to be able to have a place to sleep, a place that is both welcoming and affirming.
So how does intersectionality play a role in this? What's the experience of BIPOC LGBTQ+ people in North Carolina and in the South?
People are experiencing multiple layers of marginalization. They often have challenges that are just compounded. If you are a gay person and you're black, you're facing often homophobia and anti-black racism. If you're an immigrant and a trans person, you're facing anti-immigrant sentiments, racism and transphobia. So all those problems just stack on on top of each other. They often make it really challenging to just be able to navigate the world around you. So, the work that we do tries to consider that lens of intersectionality. Just try to meet people where they are it's important for a group like ours to not just respond to anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination or bias, but also considering other equity issues, whether they're related to race or class or gender. I think it plays a part in everything we do. If you are struggling with employment discrimination, it could be because you're trans, but it could be, additionally, because the supervisor doesn't like your race either. It's important for us to keep in mind that we can't extricate these different parts of our identity. We have to provide programs and listen to the stories of people who are grappling with a lot of different layers of identity.
That part of North Carolina is part of the bigger region of Appalachia. It's a region that is often understood as a difficult place for LGBTQ+ people to live in. Is this entirely true?
I think it's important to keep in mind that people often tend to write off the South or dismiss it, because of the discriminating laws that are passed here, or because of the people who are elected here, but I think we should just keep in mind that the people who represent us, in Congress or in state legislatures, often don't represent the entire community, and they have been able to secure their seats through gerrymandered districts and taking advantage of this polarized climate. Because of this, queer people in the South come to meet every definition of being politically powerless. We are a minority population that often gets used as a political football. Extreme lawmakers are passing anti-trans legislation all across the South. We are going back to something you would see in the early 2000s, like censoring curriculums, or trying to erase people from public discussion. I think it can be really challenging to deal with that. I sometimes think that the strongest and most resilient pockets of the queer community are here in the South because you have to stand up and push back against discrimination and people who are trying to politicize our identities. This is something that makes the queer communities in the South more vibrant than in big cities on the coast.
From abroad, there is an image about Appalachia that comes from works like Hillbilly Elegy, full of grim narratives about the resentment of poor white Americans. This has been used also to explain the support of the white working class for Donald Trump. How does it relate to the LGBTQ+ experience in the region? How these two narratives relate to each other?
I think this goes back to that idea of thinking intersectionally. It’s not like there's the working-class white southerner in this bucket and a queer Southerner in this other bucket. There are working-class queer people all across the South, there are black queer people, black working-class people, there are immigrant working class people. It's an unfair narrative to pit the working class or the Trump voters against the queer progressive Southerners. A fundamental value of the Campaign for Southern Equality is, as we call it, empathic resistance. It's essentially trying to show empathy for people and meet them where they are, and also push back on the beliefs that are shaped by discriminatory bias of any kind. I think that the media likes to shape a narrative of the working class person who is aggressively anti-LGBTQ+. And that's not really what we see. We often see the parents whose kid comes out to them as queer, and the dad has never had to contend with these issues, they only hear things on the news, but they've never been been asked to grapple with it personally. But when what they have in front of them is their kids, sharing their authentic self and also saying that they still want to be in the parents’ life, we're seeing people open their minds. I think that's often how things change. We see people who identify as politically conservative who support equality. We see people who are rural southerners who don't care about whether a trans student is able to play on their school's sports team, they care about whether they're going to feed their family. So I think it's basically a false narrative.
Looking at the national political debate in the United States right now, there is speculation that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, there will be a legal case to overturn other landmark decisions, based on the right to privacy, like Lawrence v. Texas, or Obergfell v Hodges itself. What's your feeling about it? What do you think grassroots groups can do?
Good question. I think, just to start off, that at this point the crisis is about abortion access, about the ability to access an abortion. If that leaked opinion is the final opinion, a lot of people's fundamental health care is going to be up for debate. I think it's easy to start speculating about what could happen and what could the implications be, but we don't have to speculate to understand that there's a real issue and a real crisis right in front of us.
So I think it's important that we tackle the issue of abortion access, and that includes supporting abortion funds and practical support organizations, that will ensure that people can still get to their care and get to their appointments. We don't have to make up all the other scenarios that could happen when this is so urgently in front of us. But that said, I do think that this speculation is based on well-founded fears, seen that the political climate is really oppressive right now. I don't doubt that extreme lawmakers will try to continue pushing anti LGBTQ+ legislation. They're doing it now though, even without the Supreme Court. So, again, we don't have to extrapolate out a crisis when there's a crisis right in front of us with health care being banned for trans kids in Alabama, lawmakers in Texas accusing affirming parents of being child abusers. There are so many things right in front of us.
I think what's important to keep in mind with an issue like the freedom to marry, or an issue like same sex intimacy is that there's been such a transformation in public opinion over the past few decades. And that the Supreme Court didn't gift the freedom to marry to us. It didn't strike down sodomy laws overnight. Both of those decisions were based on long, hard fought struggles of people coming out and sharing their stories and passing state laws that affirmed the freedom to marry or same sex intimacy, passed things at the ballot and voted on them, elected people who would pass things at the local level. It was a very long campaign to pass these protections. So I think it's a bit alarmist to say that the Supreme Court will undo all of that, or that there's even the will to undo all that. Even before the Supreme Court ruling, 37 states had secured the freedom to marry and I don't doubt that no matter what happens the support that people have for the freedom to marry and the support that people have for queer people in their lives will continue and they will not stand for a serious rollback of our rights.