National news is driving gay issues these days. It's all about ballot initiatives in Florida and California, Ellen's wedding, and Clay's baby. But, just like politics, the most important movements may be local — particularly the Alliance for Full Acceptance (AFFA), Charleston's gay advocacy and education organization that is turning 10 years old this fall.
Gays and lesbians were already in the news in 1998, particularly in Charleston. Local solicitor David Schwacke was forced out of the closet by conservatives in his own party and lost the Republican primary. And ex-gay poster boy John Paulk was getting face-time on TV and in magazines with his message that sexuality can be cured, including a prominent ad in The Post and Courier. Before the end of the year, Matthew Shepard would be killed in one of the most high-profile hate crimes of our generation.
It turns out that those early tests were preparation for AFFA's single largest battle — the state's 2006 gay marriage ban. That inevitable loss hasn't altered the group's march toward progress. It stands as one of the most powerful social justice organizations in the Southeast with prominent media campaign and educational seminars that have been mimicked across the country.
In August 1998, Linda Ketner, who is running this November for the U.S. Congress, collected 10 other gay locals to talk about improving the atmosphere in this town. The first idea was to start something like the gay business guild in Columbia, but as the Charleston group started laying out its priorities, it was clear that what was needed should focus on changing the landscape beyond just the local gay community.
A comment from Charlie Smith about wanting Charleston's gays and lesbians to thrive, not just survive, became a focal message for some members. Smith would attend other local LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) events and find that last names weren't used on name tags, Smith says.
"People were so afraid to be out," he says.
According to Executive Director Warren Redman-Gress, AFFA organizers wanted to build up the gay community but also reach outside to foster allies and educate others. And they determined that not only would change have to come but they couldn't sit around and wait for it.
The group has worked tirelessly to pull in partners and donations, almost entirely from the local community. Seeing South Carolina as an untapped resource, national groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force contributed to early media campaigns. But S.C.'s deeply-red red state reputation has led these groups to spend their money elsewhere.
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"Nationally, people just don't expect much coming out of South Carolina," Redman-Gress says. "It's one of those states where they say, 'You'll eventually get your rights.'"
But too many people are struggling here, right now.
"People in South Carolina still live in fear of their jobs and custody rights and housing," Redman-Gress says. "We can't afford to wait."
Taking on Opposition
The group first came out against the ex-gay media blitz that included a full page ad in the P&C suggesting that being gay is something that can be healed. AFFA took out its own full-page ad in response, telling readers that gays were the people you work with and the people you go to church with.
"People were aghast," Smith says, "but all we did was stand up and say, 'No, we're not going to take that anymore.'"
It's a message that's largely been carried through the group's various media campaigns over the years.
Those campaigns almost always include a prominent billboard on the daily Charleston commute. In the early years, they were definitely something new for Charleston.
"People would stop in the parking lot (underneath the billboard) and stare at it," Redman-Gress says. "They were just so amazed that it would be up there."
Weeks after AFFA formed, the nation suffered one of its worst hate crimes in decades with Shepard's murder. Two men, whose stories have bounced from gay panic to a drug deal gone bad, beat him and left him for dead hanging on a fence.
In response, AFFA led a vigil in Marion Square and, along with 18 other organizations including the NAACP, created a hate crimes coalition to lobby for state protections.
"We were never just about gay people," Smith says. "It was about networking, advocacy, and education."
Another early challenge for the Alliance was the City of Charleston Police Department's anti-gay employment policy in 2001. In pre-employment lie detector tests, the department would ask applicants if they'd ever engaged in homosexual activity.
Anti-sodomy laws still on the books at the time likely played a role in that line of questioning. The U.S. Supreme Court would later strike down these laws.
Mt. Pleasant, which was using similar questions, removed it immediately. But Redman-Gress says former Charleston Police Chief Reuben Greenberg resisted, but soon changed his position after discussing the issue with Mayor Joe Riley.
"If it hadn't been for us, it would have never been raised as an issue," Smith says.
The biggest fight for AFFA came with the constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2006 barring gays and lesbians from marrying. State law already outlawed gay marriage, but conservatives pushed for the amendment to cut off any future court challenge.
It was just the type of fight AFFA had formed to take on eight years earlier. The billboards, TV spots, and print ads over the years had educated the community about institutional homophobia and the pervasive naivete on gay issues. Those lessons were about to pay off.
"We understood (the amendment fight) would be the greatest teachable moment we would ever have on the real inequalities for gays and lesbians," Smith says.
Not surprisingly, the state's ban on gay marriage easily won statewide, but the measure failed on the Charleston peninsula, Folly Beach, and in a handful of other precincts in the Lowcountry. Similar trends were seen in Columbia.
"Where there has been a [gay] community, it made a difference," Redman-Gress says. "The more public the gay community is, the less apt the general public is to just pull a lever."
Educate, Not Alienate
AFFA has worked toward two main goals. The first being to educate "the moveable middle."
"For those who have already bought into the conservative rhetoric, I don't care how much money you spend, you'll never get them. And the liberal crowd is pretty much already with you," Redman-Gress says.
The moveable middle between the two poles is primarily just missing information.
"What they have are stereotypes and rhetoric and comedy skits on television," he says. "So they don't really know, and somebody has to bring it to them."
The group's other goal has been to build up the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.
AFFA's bi-monthly programs include a variety of speakers, including national LGBT leaders and local politicians and activists.
"It's just as important to make those local connections," Redman-Gress says.
The group is continuing its effort to attract younger people and people of color, says Redman-Gress.
"Everyone should be at the table. We shouldn't just be the 40 to 60s white crowd," he says.
One of those efforts was the recent Stix 'n' Stonz Munny doll auction, offering local artist renderings on the power of hate speech, with more than 100 in attendance.
"It was really amazing," Redman-Gress says. "I thought, 'Wow, how would we have ever got [young people] together to talk about the impact of negative language on the gay and lesbian community.'"
AFFA is also about bringing in straight people and letting them know that the gay community needs their support.
"The most effective spokespeople for the gay community are straight people," Redman-Gress says.
To that end, the group is developing a straight stories project that will gather first-person accounts from local gay-friendly people telling why they support the LGBT community. The stories will first be printed online and may translate over to AFFA's broader media campaign early next year.
As part of its efforts to educate, AFFA has been hosting seminars on sexual and gender orientation for professional and governmental groups, like teachers, counselors, law enforcement, and federal officials.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott says the AFFA education program helps his officers better serve citizens.
"It opens eyes and educates our deputies to better deal with diversity in our county," he says.
Since the training, LGBT crime has gone down and members of the gay community are more comfortable in reporting crimes, he says.
AFFA's currently negotiating programs for regional managers of a national hotel chain and a national warehouse retailer.
"That's really exciting to me," says Redman-Gress. "Communities are changing, in part, because corporate life is changing."
AFFA is looking toward the next 10 years with a recently completed $10,000 fund-raising campaign and an anniversary dinner Nov. 15.
It's hard to say where we'll be in another 10 years, but it's clear the landscape for gays and lesbians will shift. The last week alone has seen another state, Connecticut, tearing down the wall keeping gays from getting married. The work of AFFA and other groups, both locally and nationally, hasn't just framed the conversation on gay rights, but moved the conversation.
Some may argue that Charleston's gay community has succeeded in "thriving, not just surviving." But, there are those who still suffer — and there's another saying from Charlie Smith that drives AFFA's leaders on, regardless of any number of successes: "Pushing the envelope, every day."