Wendy Torrington (L) and Kimberly Moreno (R) of Long Beach, Mississippi, celebrate being the first same-sex couple to obtain a marriage license at Manhattan's City Clerk's Office July 24, 2011 in New York.
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Gay rights group targets Deep South

Updated

There goes the neighborhood.

Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is opening field offices in three southern states, the national organization announced over the weekend, as part of an $8.5 million effort to promote LGBT equality in places where the movement has been slower to take hold. The initiative, called Project One America, will bring 20-person staffs apiece to Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi – three states that constitutionally prohibit same-sex nuptials, and that lack nondiscrimination protections for LGBT individuals in employment, housing, and public accommodations.

“Simply put,” said Brad Clark, director of the new campaign, “these three states have long been some of the least served in the LGBT equality movement. The need was there, and we believe that equality should be for everyone, everywhere.”

According to a recent survey commissioned by HRC, nearly 65% of LGBT individuals in each of these states have suffered verbal abuse, and about one in five have experienced physical violence. A quarter reported discrimination in areas related to employment or public accommodation, and – because adoption codes are often entwined with state marriage laws – a further one in four LGBT parents lack any legal rights to the children they are raising.

“Mississippi has the single highest percentage in the country of gay and lesbian couples raising children together,” said Clark to msnbc. “The need could not be higher.”

Project One America joins a growing list of campaigns aimed at tackling the South’s long-held resistance to gay rights. Earlier in the year, the group Freedom to Marry and local state LGBT equality organizations launched a $1 million initiative to boost public support for marriage equality in 14 southern states – including Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. At the same time, political action committees, such as the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, are focusing their resources on states without any openly gay elected officials – such as Idaho and Mississippi. The American Civil Liberties Union also has turned its attention to countering so-called “religious liberty” measures – like the one quietly passed by Mississippi lawmakers late last month – which would make it easier to discriminate against gays and lesbians on the grounds of sincerely-held religious beliefs. And political advocacy groups, such as the Gill Action Fund, have committed millions to polling, research and lobbying on behalf of LGBT equality in conservative states like Missouri and Texas.

“We can’t allow two distinct gay Americas to exist,” said Tim Gill, whose foundation is throwing about $25 million at a handful of red states, in an interview with The New York Times. “Everybody should have the same rights and protections regardless of where they were born and where they live.”

This idea of “two Americas” has also resonated with HRC’s President Chad Griffin, an Arkansas-native and the first Southerner to head up the Washington-based group. Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia currently allow gay couples to marry, and suits are pending to expand that right in all but four states. At the same time, in 29 states – many of which are in the South – it remains perfectly legal for employers to fire workers based on their sexual orientation. Closing some of those gaps is crucial for groups like HRC, and will likely color the next phase of the LGBT equality movement.

“Right now, this country is deeply divided into two Americas, one where LGBT equality is nearly a reality and the other where LGBT people lack the most fundamental measures of equal citizenship,” said Griffin in a press release. “In this grand struggle for equality, we can’t write off anyone, anywhere.”

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Gay rights group targets Deep South

Updated