Opinion: Winning LGBT equality in the heartland

Rebecca Isaacs, Special to WiG

I was born in Wisconsin and have spent time in Nebraska, where my mother’s vast set of relatives gathers every year to celebrate family and place. Although today I call California home, I’m always happy to return to the region of the country where I was born. Just recently, I traveled to Chicago for Equality Federation’s Midwest Leadership Summit, the annual gathering of our Midwest Cohort. 

Equality Federation is the strategic partner and movement builder for state-based LGBT advocacy organizations. As executive director, I clock thousands of miles each year to work on-the-ground with the state leaders who are winning equality in the communities we call home.

In Chicago, I connected with more than 30 state-based movement professionals who are advancing LGBT-inclusive policies in the Midwest.

Sitting in the meeting room, surrounded by smart, strategic, effective leaders from across the region, I had never been more aware of the incredible ways our movement is shifting.

For years, wins in the LGBT movement were concentrated on the coasts. Northeastern states passed a wave of LGBT-inclusive laws in swift succession. And on the Left, or West Coast, we charged ahead with a variety of legislation aimed at protecting our community.

The victories on the coasts, while historic, gave rise to concern that the Midwest and the Southeast would be forgotten and fail to receive the critical support that’s necessary to continue winning over the long term. But momentum is now building in every state. In the Midwest, we are more strategic, more sophisticated and more successful than ever before. 

Change really is happening everywhere, including in America’s heartland.

Of the states represented around the table in Chicago, two won the freedom to marry for same-sex couples this year. Three are engaged in robust statewide campaigns to pass critical laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. Two are aggressively and successfully fighting back against harmful legislation that threatens our communities.

In just two days, state leaders shared strategies for advocating locally and statewide, discussed opportunities for effective collaboration and learned about what’s working in neighboring states. They talked through the challenges of developing messaging that resonates with Midwestern values, of securing funding for incremental work and of organizing in rural areas.

In short, Midwest state leaders developed a playbook for winning equality in the heartland. 

The two days I spent in Chicago were inspiring, and I left feeling full of promise. Our wins are no longer counted by the number of states on our coasts. They’re measured in the innovation of our movement leaders, in the strides we take each day, in the change we’re making one community at a time.

The places we call home — that’s where equality begins and ends.

Rebecca Isaacs is the executive director of the Equality Federation, a strategic partner and movement builder to state-based advocacy organizations.