Stonewall50 Down South: How Have Red States Shaped the Movement?

"If you look at the historical markers of what made change happen in the courts—they tended to be the South."

Pictured above: Pride and Texas flags.

This week in New York City, tens of thousands of LGBTQ people from around the world will descend upon the Northeastern concrete metropolis for twin celebrations of World Pride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

Within the American LGBTQ rights narrative, Stonewall has come to occupy a foundational, highly visible reference point of the movement’s origin. In the decades since those three days of riots against police violence and brutality, the bigger cites of America seem to have, in many ways, led the charge by consistently being among the first to pass larger-scale protections for LGBTQ folks. But with the knowledge that nearly 4 million LGBTQ people live in more rural parts of America, how has progress functioned differently in the American South—and how has the work in this region shaped the movement for LGBTQ rights and protections on a national scale?

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Riots at the Stonewall Inn, 1969.

Mandy Carter was 20 years old and living in San Francisco at the time of Stonewall, working with the War Resisters League. A lifelong activist who has dedicated her life to LGBTQ movement, she relocated to Durham, North Carolina, during the height of the AIDS crisis and committed herself to changing to culture of the South. She and a number of others cofounded Southerners on New Ground (SONG), a highly influential social justice group still engaged in direct action efforts today. “If you stay where you live and where your culture is and you try to make change there—that’s where the game-changer comes into play,” she tells NewNowNext.


From Carter’s perspective, a hugely significant number of events, legal and otherwise, that shaped the lives of queer people and other marginalized communities across America can be traced back to Southern states. “If you look at the historical markers of what made change happen in the courts—they tended to be the South,” Carter says. “When we see that happen, it underscores why it’s so critical and pivotal that we do the work in these states through both direct action and legal efforts.”

In thinking about social justice movements more broadly, Carter points to Supreme Court cases Loving v. Virginia and Roe v. Wade as seminal legal precedents that forever changed the culture of America. Loving v. Virginia struck down laws surrounding interracial marriage and Roe v. Wade ruled state-level regulation of abortion unconstitutional. These two cases stemmed from Virginia and Texas, respectively. In considering LGBTQ issues, specifically, Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 ruling that stated criminalizing same-sex conduct was unconstitutional, also came from a Southern state.

A volunteer (L) escorts patients into the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, 2018.

Marisa Richmond, a former board member of the National Center for Transgender Equality and a longtime activist in the state of Tennessee, echoes Carter’s thoughts that the much of the direct legal action surrounding social justice movements can be traced back to Southern states.

“When you look at the civil rights movement, it was centered in the South. The work that has been done or was done had to be focused in the South—Jim Crow was a Southern phenomenon,” Richmond says. “And, of course, when the marriage equality ruling went through everybody constantly just called it ‘Obgergefell,’ but there were actually four states involved, one of them was Tennessee. Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, and Michigan. The four of us make up the 6th circuit. By ruling on that they specifically said the Tennessee and Kentucky bans were unconstitutional.”

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A boy drinks form a colored water fountain in Hallifax, North Carolina, 1938.

Beyond positive legal precedent, in recent years cultural conversations surrounding LGBTQ issues have often begun below the Mason-Dixon line. Most notably, the international outcry surrounding House Bill 2 ignited a polarizing debate surrounding the ability of trans people to exist in public space and further underscored a need for comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ folks—namely, the Equality Act.

The reality framing these points of connection between progress and Southern states, however, is that while the infrastructure might exist within Southern states to start these conversations and bring issues directly impacting marginalized communities to the surface, the political support necessary to actually enact positive social change often isn’t there.

“Ultimately, we’re relying heavily on the federal government to step in since we’re not able to get anything from our state legislators,” Richmond explains. “And so that’s going to play out down the road 50 years from now as we continue to make those victories and, in turn, we’re going to force change on the South whether the South wants to change or not.”

Al Drago/CQ Roll Call
Protest of HB 2 in Raleigh, North Carolina, 2016.

As Southern states have evidenced time and time again, progress for queer folks is possible—and potentially even feels more dire within parts of the country where cultural attitudes skew conservative. The five decades since Stonewall may look differently south of the Mason-Dixon line, but those states have played integral roles in helping to slowly push this country forward and channeling legal precedent to the federal level.

“We’ve seen the change happen,” Carter says. “And we do have setbacks, we know that. But it’s been people giving their time and their lives, and allies who have enabled us to make it to where we are now.”

James Michael Nichols is a writer, storyteller and the former editor of HuffPost Queer Voices.