National LGBT Organizations: Welcome to the South

For years southern states have been treated as the step-children of the LGBT movement. Few national organizations invested any real money, compared to other parts of the country where wins were more predictable. Even gay folks said "we won't get equality til the whole country has equality."

But then, openly LGBT candidates in places like Georgia and Alabama and Arkansas started beating the odds and winning office, holding off bad bills and even passing a few good ones. National groups started realizing what the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund already knew: don't forfeit the South. There are victories to be had, many of them infused with the importance of being huge breakthroughs and carrying the weight of being the lone LGBT representative in a given electoral body.

But it is different down here. Democrats can't be counted on to support LGBT equality - even the most progressive (by southern standards) shy away from words like "marriage equality" and when push comes to shove, they'll use LGBT issues as political ammunition. (In all fairness, even some LGBT people advise their favored candidates to steer clear - and if we can't stand for ourselves, how can we expect them to do so?)

In Alabama, the first openly LGBT state representative Patricia Todd had to fight off a Democratic primary recount fueled by matters of race, sexual orientation and control of the local party. (She won, and is still fighting to stop anti-equality legislation.)

In Arkansas, the first openly LGBT person to run for office, Kathy Webb, was also "gay-baited" as her primary opponents told voters she would be ineffective working within the conservative state legislature. (She too won and became the first woman Chair of the Joint Budget Committee.)

And in Georgia, the would-be first openly LGBT State Senator Kyle Williams is having to fight a sad but not surprising battle. In a rare Democrat-takes-all district, his allegedly progressive opponent is attacking him by distorting a gay organization's endorsement shared by several other long-standing Democrats in a non-partisan race 5 years ago.

Given the district's leanings, it's not quite as obvious as attacks Todd and Webb faced - but it's there.

It started with a push-poll, a common campaign tactic to plant doubt in the minds of voters disguised as gauging opinion. In it, the poll suggested that Williams had taken contributions from an organization that supported D.C. Republicans like Sen. John McCain. (He hadn't.) Although the campaign claimed it had nothing to do with it, a mailer with the same message hit today, claiming Williams was endorsed by a group that endorsed Mitt Romney. (He wasn't.)

In the style of campaigning that makes voters say "this is why I hate politics," both the push-poll and the last-minute mailer are downright false but could be powerful.

But this is where it gets interesting: Williams' opponent keeps speaking of "a Republican group" but won't name it. The source on the mailer is listed as an article in which refers to Williams being endorsed by three LGBT groups in a different, non-partisan race, including the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans. So why not call it out?

The GA Voice put it this way: "it's a slippery slope for Parent, who can't mention who this unnamed Republican group is because it's a gay group, and then she would come off as homophobic." Exactly.

But here's the thing: A closeted attack is still an attack.

And that's another thing about the South: things aren't always as they seem. A friend puts it this way: "We can tell you to go to hell in a way that makes you look forward to the trip." Or, as Kathy Webb puts it: "In the South, they love their gays. It's just the rest of the gays they don't like." And that distinction often sways their votes.

National organizations, welcome to the South. We've been needing you. Just be sure you have a cultural interpreter on the team.