Annual #LGBTsouth conference highlights intersectionality, inclusive spaces, and religion
Nearly 700 participants from around the country packed the Asheville, N.C., AB Tech campus last weekend for the third annual LGBT in the South conference. The aura of activism and unity emanated brightly as both first-time and returning attendees assembled together representing a diverse spectrum of LGTBQ people.
“This is my first conference,” said Victoria Dedmon, a student at Warren Wilson College. “I work in the Center for Gender and Relationships on campus and I was offered an opportunity to come.”
Zac Baker of ReconcilingWorks was also present for an inaugural experience.
“I work for a Lutheran nonprofit that advocates for queer people in the church,” Baker said moments before the opening session. “This conference is cool because I can come on behalf of my organization and really think critically about how important it is for people to use their faith voices to stand up to discrimination, and to also welcome and include everyone, especially people who have been specifically excluded. On a personal level, as a cisgender white person I want to learn tools and tips on how to show up for racial justice, looking at sexuality at the intersection of race. That’s not something I necessarily get a bunch of opportunities to do.”
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE), welcomed the conference’s record-setting audience Friday afternoon launching into the weekend’s loaded agenda that spanned March 18-20. Ferrara expressed her immense gratitude to the CSE team and conference advisory committee for making LGBT in the South possible.
During the welcome, conference coordinators directed attention to the various measures taken to ensure inclusiveness and comfort for everyone in attendance, including the presence of pronoun buttons, all gender restrooms, and language interpretation. Participants were also briefed on a weekend long pop-up clinic that offered free direct services such as on-site HIV/AIDS testing, peer counseling, financial literacy support, professional coaching, legal aid, and one-on-one consultations for gender confirmation surgery.
Established in 2014, LGBT in the South has repeatedly explored new and informative topics focused on building leadership and awareness around pertinent LGBTQ issues. This year proved no exception.
Friday kicked off with a criminal justice and rights panel that shed light on the discriminatory practices toward LGBTQ prisoners and immigrants in detention.
“LGBT lives are profoundly vulnerable and threatened by criminal justice systems,” Urvashi Vaid, one of the panelist and CEO of The Vaid Group, said during the keynote discussion. “Our lives have been criminalized, over-policed, and regulated by the state in a wide range of ways. The people who bear the brunt of that today are people of color, and trans people especially.”
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In a workshop later that day, participants heard from Warren Radebe, a student leader at Johnson C. Smith University and South African native. Radebe expounded on the queer experience in his home country and the unique challenges facing the LGBTQ population throughout the entire continent.
“Despite our inclusive constitution that recognizes all benefits and rights of LGBT people, it is still hard to be yourself in South Africa,” Radebe said. “If people are dying because of their identity, raped because they are proud lesbians, humiliated and made to have sex in front of everyone, in front of kids, then there is a problem.”
Radebe called for increased collaboration and assistance from the LGBTQ movements in the states.
“Do we exchange information?” he asked. “No. Do we have meetings with them on Skype? No. Do we reach out to help and tell them this how you do it? No. These young people are trying but they will not be able to engage on a policy level because they don’t have the information. We cannot leave Africa behind.”
On Saturday, workshops continued to inform and inspire. Presentations covered a host of subject matter and challenged conference-goers to dig deeper into different concerns such as transgender safety issues, the harmful affects of heteronormativity in school cultures, successful partnerships in LGBTQ advocacy work, and culturally appropriate healthcare services for black gay/bisexual men.
The role of religion for queer black people was examined on Sunday during a presentation by Denise Donnell of HRC Arkansas. Donnell laid out the four components of human sexuality as it relates to the bible:
• body ➡️ biological sex
• mind ➡️ gender identity
• spirit ➡️ gender expression
• heart ➡️ attraction
“This challenges everything you thought you knew,” she explained. “But disorientation is a good thing. Because now that you’ve experienced disorientation, when you go back to the text you’re going to read it through a different lens.”
To cap off the conference, eight participants took the stage at the closing celebration Sunday to receive a Southern Equality Fund grant. The initiative which started in 2015 annually awards financial resources to grassroots LGBTQ efforts with an emphasis on those in small and rural towns.
Chloe Stuber, CSE’s hometown organizing project coordinator, said she was excited to see the recipients’ projects come to life.
Upon further reflection on the weekend as a whole, Stuber said she was filled with emotion.
“The conference has grown so much,” she said. “I can only imagine what the future holds.”
📷: Kennon Walker