A national organization is launching a three-year, $8.5 million campaign to promote LGBT equality and push for new legal protections in three Southern states dominated by conservative politics and religion and known for resistance to change: Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi.
Decades after groups used boycotts, marches, sit-ins, pickets and mass rallies to end legalized racial segregation and push for equal protection for blacks, the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign is planning a new kind of civil rights movement. It's one based on using chats and front-porch visits between relatives and friends to foster an environment more welcoming toward people of all sexual orientations.
The idea is simple, and it's borne out in polls: People are less likely to oppose expanded rights and acceptance if they know and care for someone who's gay. Activists hope that's particularly true in a region that values hospitality.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT civil rights group, plans to open offices in each state and staff them with 20 people total, primarily residents.
Workers will meet with friends, allies, neighbors, business executives, faith leaders and community groups in an attempt to increase acceptance of LGBT people. The project is called "Project One America."
The aim is to first change hearts and minds so that people hiding their sexual orientation will be more comfortable about coming out publicly. As that occurs, organizers believe, communities and states will be more likely to adopt laws to prevent discrimination.
"You overcome all of the objections by having conversations and getting to know your neighbors," Chad Griffin, an Arkansas native and president of Human Rights Campaign, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
With horrific records in race relations, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi resisted civil and voting rights for blacks in the 1960s. And unlike other Southern states, the three still haven't enacted legal safeguards to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation in areas like housing and employment.
Yet surveys have shown the states have roughly the same percentage of gay residents as other states, Griffin said, and Human Rights Campaign has a total of 57,000 members and supporters in the states, which have a total population of 10.7 million people.
Organizers hope to accelerate change that already has included four Mississippi towns passing non-binding resolutions against LGBT discrimination. In Alabama, a civil rights museum is currently showing a photo exhibit of LGBT youth aimed at promoting acceptance.
"The pace of progress really has been fast, but you can't leave anyone behind," said Griffin.
A leader within Alabama's Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Joe Godfrey, said he hoped churches would be loving and compassionate toward workers in such a campaign, but also firm in the denomination's position that the Bible allows only heterosexual relationships.
"I believe that churches, if they are true to the biblical concept of what a church should be, cannot compromise biblical principle," said Godfrey, executive director of the interdenominational Alabama Citizens Action Program, which calls itself "Alabama's Moral Compass."
Godfrey said he would welcome discussions with Human Rights Campaign if approached, but he doubts gay activists want to hear what he has to say. "My question is if the LGBT people will be open," he said.
Joce Pritchett, a Mississippi engineer who has two children with another woman, said a quiet campaign relying on interpersonal relationships would likely work better than in-your-face demonstrations like those employed during the civil rights era of the `60s across the South.
Pritchett legally married Carla Webb in Maine last year, but they haven't filed their marriage certificate in Mississippi because the state doesn't recognize same-sex marriage. Still, she said, straight Mississippians seem more willing than ever to support equality across the spectrum of sexual orientation.
"I think public acceptance already is building. I've seen tremendous change in the last two years," said Pritchett, 46, of Jackson, Miss. "I think that what's changing things is that people see we're from here and that we want to live at home in Mississippi."
The director of the Mississippi-based William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, Susan Glisson, said the campaign can succeed in promoting more acceptance of the LGBT community in the Deep South, something she thought nearly impossible only a few years ago.
"I think there is a gentleness that needs to be considered because these are conversations that play out in families," said Glisson. "We are still the Bible Belt."