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New Report and PBS Series Document LGBTQ Equality in the U.S. South

Series and Report Reveal Slow Progress Toward Equality in Southern States 

Rebecca Farmer, Movement Advancement Project, | 415.269.6275

(May 26, 2020) Boulder, CO—More lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people live in the U.S. South than in any other region of the United States. But for the one in three LGBTQ adults who call the South home, the South is the most hostile LGBTQ state policy landscape in the country. Today, the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) released a new report, LGBTQ Policy Spotlight: Mapping LGBTQ Equality in the U.S. South, which details how a dearth of progressive laws and policies in 14 Southern states has led to distinct challenges along with unique opportunities for advancing legal equality for LGBTQ people in the region.

Today’s report is released in partnership with PRIDELAND, a new one-hour special and short-form digital series following host and actor Dyllón Burnside (from FX’s “Pose”) on a journey across the South. From a lesbian rodeo champ in Texas to an African American mayor ally in Alabama, he discovers how LGBTQ Americans are finding ways to live authentically and with pride in the modern South. The six-episode short-form series will launch on PBS Voices, a new documentary-focused YouTube Channel by PBS Digital Studios, beginning today. A one-hour companion special, also hosted by Burnside, will premiere on Friday, June 12 at 9:00pm EDT (check local listings) on PBS, and the PBS Video App.

LGBTQ Policy Spotlight: Mapping LGBTQ Equality in the U.S. South explores the LGBTQ policy landscape in the South in relation to the overall LGBTQ policy landscape for all U.S. states, based on a tallying of nearly 40 LGBTQ-related laws and policies. Compared to the Northeast, West, and Midwest regions, the South has the lowest average LGBTQ policy tally, with an average 1.3 points out of a possible 38.5 points. Of the 14 states examined in the South, all but one are ranked as either negative equality states (eight states) or low equality states (five states). This means that 93% of LGBTQ Southerners live in negative or low equality states. Only Virginia is ranked as a fair equality state, a development that occurred in the first months of 2020 and marking a potential beginning of change in the South.

“Despite broad support for LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections from majorities of both political parties and religious groups, lawmakers in the South continue to enact laws and policies that makes life harder for the 3.6 million LGBTQ people who call the South home,” said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of MAP. “But don’t be mistaken: Southern advocates have defeated the vast majority of anti-equality legislation by building broad community coalitions—and they have done remarkable work in supporting the LGBTQ community through innovative programming, services, and advocacy—despite hostile laws.”

The report offers both an analysis of key LGBTQ policy areas in the region today, and a retrospective look at overall changes among the states in the South since 2010. Key findings include:

  1. Very few Southern states have state-level relationship and parental recognition laws, with only two states prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people who wish to foster or adopt. The 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell resulted in a significant shift for LGBTQ people in the South, extending marriage and related family recognition to LGBTQ people and their families at a time when no state in the South had extended such recognition.

  2. The South is far more likely to have harmful laws targeting LGBTQ youth. In the 2020 legislative session, at least 10 of the 14 Southern states introduced bills that explicitly target transgender youth, including proposals to prevent transgender youth from accessing medically-necessary medical care and participating in sports according to their gender identity.

  3. Southern states are far less likely to have LGBTQ-inclusive protections in healthcare and far more likely to have explicit discriminatory policies. In 2020, Virginia became the first and so far only Southern state to ban discrimination in insurance on the basis of gender identity.

  4. Religious exemptions laws allow doctors and healthcare providers, adoption or foster agencies, and more to explicitly refuse to work with LGBTQ people and others if doing so would conflict with their religious beliefs. Eight of the 13 states that have at least one of these laws are in the South.

  5. Criminal justice. Despite the fact that nearly half (46%) of all people living with HIV live in the South, nearly all Southern states (11 out of 14) have HIV criminalization laws. Additionally, so-called “panic defenses” attempt to excuse violent crimes committed against LGBTQ people on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the assailant’s violent reaction. While 10 states have banned the use of such a defense in a courtroom, none of these are in the South.

  6. Southern states are more likely to have laws or policies that make it extremely difficult for transgender people to update their name and gender on identity documents. Eight of the nine states that either require proof of “sexual reassignment surgery” or have extremely burdensome processes for updating gender markers on driver’s license are in the South. 

While the South may lag in LGBTQ laws and policies relative to other regions, the report concludes with findings that highlight the progress made at state and local levels:

  1. In 2010, all 14 Southern states were ranked as negative equality states. But by April 2020, all states but one had improved their scores, and five states had improved enough to change category (from negative to low or fair).

  2. In 2020, Virginia became the first and only state in the South to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics in employment, housing, and public accommodations nondiscrimination laws. Additionally, Florida leads the South and the country (among states without statewide nondiscrimination protections) in enacting local nondiscrimination ordinances, with 60% of Floridians living in places with LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections.
In a rapidly changing legal landscape, MAP’s LGBTQ Equality Maps track LGBTQ equality, populations, and other data by state. Maps are updated daily as changes in law, policy, and legislation occur. All Equality Maps, including high-resolution JPEG versions, are available for publication. The LGBTQ Equality Maps allow websites to embed the maps easily and for free. Visit to learn more.

Click here to read the report.

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MAP's mission is to provide independent and rigorous research, insight and communications that help speed equality and opportunity for all. MAP works to ensure that all people have a fair chance to pursue health and happiness, earn a living, take care of the ones they love, be safe in their communities, and participate in civic life.

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Sexual Orientation Policy Tally

The term “sexual orientation” is loosely defined as a person’s pattern of romantic or sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex or gender, the same sex or gender, or more than one sex or gender. Laws that explicitly mention sexual orientation primarily protect or harm lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. That said, transgender people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual can be affected by laws that explicitly mention sexual orientation.

Gender Identity Policy Tally

“Gender identity” is a person’s deeply-felt inner sense of being male, female, or something else or in-between. “Gender expression” refers to a person’s characteristics and behaviors such as appearance, dress, mannerisms and speech patterns that can be described as masculine, feminine, or something else. Gender identity and expression are independent of sexual orientation, and transgender people may identify as heterosexual, lesbian, gay or bisexual. Laws that explicitly mention “gender identity” or “gender identity and expression” primarily protect or harm transgender people. These laws also can apply to people who are not transgender, but whose sense of gender or manner of dress does not adhere to gender stereotypes.

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