In Conservative States, 2 Cities (and a Church) Helped LGBT Rights Gain Ground

From Idaho to Georgia, people found ways to offer sanctuary and legal protection.
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The Cathedral of Hope in Dallas claims to be the largest LGBT-affirming church in the United States. Photo from Cathedral of Hope.

This article is part of our state-by-state exploration of local solutions.

Texas

Alan Womack had just started working as a minister at Cathedral of Hope, a Dallas church with more than 4,000 local and remote members, when 49 people were fatally shot at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando that he had once visited himself.

Womack’s congregation, which is predominantly LGBT, joined thousands in a silent march through Dallas to mourn the Pulse shooting’s victims. “Seeing that sense of community from a church where I’d just started working was amazing,” he said. “Just that ability to come together and be a family during that crisis.”

The Cathedral of Hope opened in 1970 as an LGBT-affirming church, and leaders believe it is the largest such church in the United States.

For many LGBT people, churches have not offered the kind of sanctuary they promise, says Rev. Dr. Neil Cazares-Thomas, the cathedral’s senior pastor. This has been especially true in the South, where conservative values are culturally ingrained. But Cathedral of Hope provides the space to reconcile sexuality and spirituality through its mission “to reclaim Christianity as a faith of extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion.”

The congregation’s progressive leadership has had far-reaching influence. Cazares-Thomas believes Cathedral of Hope has paved the way for increased tolerance of LGBT people in more mainline Protestant congregations nationwide over the past 46 years. And the church itself is bringing together people in Dallas—including many straight allies—who might have previously rejected Christianity because of beliefs that their life experiences were incompatible with the scriptures.

Being a follower of Jesus, Cazares-Thomas says, is truly about “living by the values and not by the dogmas of religion.” —Liza Bayless

Idaho

In one of the most conservative states in the country, LGBT people are especially vulnerable to housing and employment discrimination. For years, the Idaho House of Representatives has refused to pass a bill that would add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to legal protections of citizens statewide. So cities themselves have taken action.

Pocatello, home to Idaho State University, passed a highly contested ordinance with new protections for LGBT people in 2013. The next year, the city became the first in the state to face a repeal effort.

The community-led Fair Pocatello campaign deployed volunteers to educate citizens about LGBT rights and mobilize votes against the repeal. Their efforts ultimately succeeded, leading to a narrow win—by 147 votes—to retain the ordinance.

“Residents in Pocatello can hold their heads up a little higher now,” says Diane Michel, one of Fair Pocatello’s organizers. —Liza Bayless

Georgia

When police pulled over Juan Evans, a Trans man from the Atlanta suburb of East Point, for speeding in 2014, Evans says they called him “it” and “thing” and threatened him with a genital search. For Trans people nationwide, such harassment is not unusual. But in Georgia, Evans’ experience prompted change.

“Dear East Point Police, I will not give you my courage, I will not give you my dignity,” Evans said in a video he posted to YouTube days after the encounter. “I will not let you shame and humiliate me into submission.” Instead, Evans and a crowd of 50 people took their complaint to city hall.

The city listened: Working with local LGBT activists, East Point’s police department became one of the first in the nation to require officers to undergo training on Trans issues and on eliminating derogatory language. Officers were instructed to use the gender identity chosen by the individual as well as their chosen name. They also established protections for individuals who needed objects, such as wigs or prosthetics, to maintain their gender identity.

Evans died later that year of health complications. Project Q, an Atlanta LGBT news publication, praised Evans’ push for justice: “Juan was a freedom fighter who taught us again and again that ‘When We Fight, We Win!’” —Araz Hachadourian