A United Church of Christ minister and her growing group of advocates are traveling through seven southern states with a very visible message of support for LGBT equality. The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is using a proactive approach to promote the rights of all in the southern United States, supporting same-sex couples who are demonstrating the lack of equality as they apply for, and are denied, marriage licenses.
“The purpose is for folks to express their full humanity in public life, and see what happens when they’re denied an equal right,” Beach-Ferrara said.
The WE DO Campaign is one arm of the Campaign for Southern Equality, an Asheville, N.C. organization that Beach-Ferrara launched in 2011. The campaign has LGBT couples in the south requesting marriage licenses in their home states, knowing they will be denied in those communities because same-sex marriage is against the law.
“What we’re aiming to do is to take peaceful, direct actions,” Beach-Ferrara added.
Local couples participate in these public actions in their hometowns, typically in communities that don’t have a strong witness for LGBT rights. Since the media is reporting on several of the events, the public sees or reads the stories and learns about the campaign. The peaceful protests are also aimed to call for federal equality of same-gender marriages since the political climate in the south isn’t likely to bring marriage equality to the state level in the near future. North Carolina has a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages, and none of the states on the Campaign for Southern Equality trail has recognized marriage equality.
In January alone, the campaign has scheduled stops in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and back to North Carolina before working further north into Virginia. The demonstrations take place in towns with a population of only a few hundred residents to large cities like Charlotte.
“We’ll do the campaign in stages across the south until we reach full equality,” Beach-Ferrara said. “We’ll continue doing it until there is full LGBT equality at the federal level.”
Part of that could happen within six months, since the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear two cases at the end of March on marriage equality. The Court will likely issue its ruling at the end of June.
Beach-Ferrara said she has encountered people during the demonstrations who have told her they have never seen clergy advocating for LGBT rights – typically places where there is not a UCC-affirming congregation – but word is circulating in the region because of national and international media attention. News organizations such as the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC and USA Today, and the Guardian and BBC from the United Kingdom, have reported the story. “I think it’s because this is an unexpected story in the South. People aren’t used to seeing LGBT advocacy in the South,” Beach-Ferrara said.
“The philosophy is we need to do these actions in areas deemed to be unwinnable. And if they are unwinnable, we don’t want to write them off,” the Rev. Joe Hoffman, pastor at First Congregational UCC in Asheville, N.C., said. “The Civil Rights Movement began in the South and we had to have that happen here.”
First Congregational UCC in Asheville, N.C., which acts as the headquarters for the campaign, became an open and affirming church about a decade ago. Years later Hoffman preached a sermon in which he said he wouldn’t bless heterosexual marriages until he was allowed to do the same for same-sex marriages under state law. A news organization published a story on his stance, and First Congregational eventually became a publicly inclusive church for LGBT people.
The Campaign for Southern Equality has various managers, communications and travel staff, interns, and a legal team that offers its services pro bono. “On one hand were a scrappy grassroots startup, were working on a lean budget, but there’s extraordinary readiness for LGBT awareness in the south,” Beach-Ferrara said.
Both Beach-Ferrara and Hoffman spoke about LGBT advocacy and the role faith plays with it. “I think she finally said she wanted to go to divinity school, and this was a dream of what she wanted to do,” Hoffman said.
Beach-Ferrara’s blueprint for her LGBT campaigns came together after she completed divinity school at Harvard and returned to her native North Carolina. Beach-Ferrara said that growing up in the state as a gay person shaped her experiences.
Beach-Ferrara is a graduate of Brown University, earned her masters from Warren Wilson College, and was ordained in the UCC in February 2012 at Hope Central Church in Boston.
On Jan. 17, the campaign will travel to Arlington, Va., where a couple, together for 20 years, will ask the state for a marriage license – and won’t receive it because Virginia doesn’t permit same-sex marriages – before marching north about 4.5 miles into Washington, D.C., for a blessing of a legal marriage for the couple at the Jefferson Monument.
“We can win this in terms of a moral victory," Hoffman said. "We want to help by bringing that change about [with LGBT rights].”