Last month was Pride month, a time dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ+ stories and experiences. In many cities across the US you'll find, at some point in the month, a Pride Parade or some big community event. These are moments where many people, particularly LGBTQ+ youth, are first able to find a community of people like them. But for many smaller towns, especially in the rural south, these events do not exist.
After spending last summer in Mississippi, as part of their program at UNC, Brennan Lewis - a Peace First Fellow - couldn't help but notice these events missing in the small town they were based. This meant the queer youth there were left feeling isolated and afraid, something Brennan can't stand for.
So this summer, Brennan has hit the road, along with Monique Laborde, to capture the stories of young queer leaders in the rural south. Throughout the summer, they're traversing a number of states, finding young people organizing their own Pride events, creating safe spaces, and working to ensure no one, no matter their gender identity or sexuality, faces discrimination. Up first was Huntington, West Virginia:
"Huntington’s campaign for a more inclusive community started around 2014, when the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy organization in the U.S., gave Huntington a low rating on the Municipal Equality Index, an annual score given to municipalities to measure their LGBT inclusivity. The rating tracks local governments’ actions and policies related to LGBT inclusion, such as prohibiting discrimination in housing or employment, appointing LGBT liaisons to the mayor’s office or police department, and making public statements supporting LGBT rights.
"Huntington’s 2014 score was just a 45 out of 100.
"'I looked at it, and I was sick to my stomach, and I was ashamed. I was ashamed. So I thought, the city that I love is better than that. I said look at this, this isn’t acceptable. Find out what we have to do to start improving our scores,' Williams said.
"Huntington has made big strides since 2013. The city council unanimously passed a non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2015, Mayor Williams appointed a new LGBT Advisory Committee. The next year, Huntington launched an ‘Open To All’ campaign recognizing local businesses committed to celebrating diversity and inclusion."