Although LGBTQ+ people have experienced increased acceptance and visibility over the past decade, the Southern U.S. continues to lag behind the rest of the country in terms of supporting LGBTQ+ people. Nevertheless, over a third of all queer people in the U.S. live in the Southeast.
Overall, the South is a unique geographic location—both in reality and in the national imagination. People continue to believe the region is uniformly closed-minded and conservative—religiously, politically and socially.
Many have written the South off as backwards and, therefore, given up hope for progressive change in this region of the country. This is also why the majority of media attention and research on queer lives is conducted in “urban enclaves,” which leads to a metro-normative narrative of queer life.
The 2019 Southern LGBTQ Health Survey was the first and largest of its kind, providing vital information from over 5,600 Southern queer people about their health and living in this region of the country. It provides some of the most thorough data to date to show how the lack of information and resources in the region are affecting queer lives and health in the South.
While lesbian, gay, bisexual and other queer people continue to face prejudice, discrimination and structural barriers in the South, the survey shows that trans respondents reported the worst physical and mental health, felt most uncomfortable seeking medical care and received lower-quality care than other queer people in the region.
These statistics are also supported by nationwide surveys of trans people. For instance, the U.S. Trans Survey in 2015 found that 23 percent of trans people did not seek healthcare when they needed it due to fear of mistreatment. Additionally, 33 percent reported mistreatment from providers in the prior year.
Furthermore, in a study I conducted with trans men in the South—Trans Men in the South: Becoming Men (Lexington Books, January 2020)—the men surveyed spoke at great length about how living in this region of the country led them to feel unsafe.
One interviewee in Georgia said:
“This is such a red state… Southeastern state that… the fear is there. You can still drive by porches and see confederate flags, and that always, you know, is dangerous…I have to remember that like the danger is real.”
“Living in the South is a very scary thing… I make more of an effort [to pass] … I used to be pretty open about my transness… but like, this whole overwhelming anxiety about living in the South, in a highly conservative area, has me constantly looking at my surroundings and counting exits and hating big crowds, refusing to go to the bathroom.”
The limited resources available in the South for trans people are even less accessible because there are not federal protections for trans people. Therefore, each state has a piecemeal system of polices, laws and resources. If resources and support are available, the systems are often difficult to navigate—and impossible without know-how and resources.
Because each state has different polices and laws, I use the state of Georgia as a case study for navigating trans rights and resources in the South.
The state of Georgia is estimated to have the fourth highest percentage of trans residents of any U.S. state, and the highest percentage of any other Southeastern state. In 2016, the Williams Institute estimated approximately 500 thousand trans people resided in the Southeastern U.S., with over 55 thousand trans people resided in Georgia.
Yet, despite some moves toward protections in certain industries, trans Georgians continue to live with almost no legal protections regarding their gender identities, and even has some laws that prohibit inclusion of trans people.
Only five cities in Georgia have any sort of non-discrimination policy covering gender identity, leaving only 6 percent of the trans population protected from discrimination in private employment, housing, and public accommodations.
Georgia scores a -4 out of 20.5 points on the Movement Advancement Project’s gender identity equality profile. This means, while Georgia is home to the fourth highest population of trans residents in the U.S., it has less protections for trans residents than any other state in the nation.
Currently in the state of Georgia, there are no non-discrimination laws to protect trans people in employment, housing, public accommodations, health insurance, adoption, foster care or credit and lending. Georgia has no non-discrimination laws for students or anti-bullying policies, does not ban conversion therapy and has no specific protections for trans youth in the child welfare system. Trans people in the state are not protected by hate crime legislation and the state does not ban the panic defense when violence is perpetrated against trans people.
This lack of protection from discrimination and overt violence unmistakably communicates to trans people that they are not seen as worthy of safety in Georgia.
Additionally, to legally change your name and/or gender marker on your driver’s license in Georgia requires proof of surgery, court order, or an amended birth certificate. On the National Center for Transgender Equality rating of how trans friendly the driver’s license gender change policy is by state, Georgia scores and F, along with eight other mostly southern states—Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa and Oklahoma.
The name change policy in Georgia is so transphobic and traumatic that one trans man I spoke with from Georgia actually moved to another state in order to change his name.
Overall, Georgia is falling its trans residents and will once again go down in history as one of the last states to advance equality. And while Georgia is but one state in this region, it is largely representative of the Southeastern U.S.
The state of Georgia teaches us that queer people live in regions where equality is still a long ways off. Without the city of Atlanta, Georgia is basically a battle zone for trans people. Learning more about this region and ensuring that all people have the basic resources they need will vastly improve the lives of many people in the state, the country, and the world.
The good news is, despite the national imagination of the South, there are queers here in Georgia and the broader region fighting for change.
And we need your help. Don’t give up on the South, because that means giving up on me and many other even more vulnerable queer people in the region.
You can join, donate or volunteer with a variety of non-profits in the region striving to make the South more livable for queer people.
Here are a few of my favorites in Georgia:
- Georgia Equality, whose “mission is to advance fairness, safety and opportunity for LGBT communities and our allies throughout the state.”
- Trans(forming), who works with all people who were “wrongly assigned female at birth” to provide resources and transitional support.
- Southerners on New Ground (SONG), a group working to bring about “LGBTQ liberation across all lines of race, class, abilities, age, culture, gender, and sexuality in the South.”
- TRANScending Barriers, a trans-led organization whose “mission is to empower the transgender and gender non-conforming community in Georgia.”