New LGBT voice emerges in conservative South Carolina

Updated
SC Equality PAC, a newly-launched political action committee, is bringing LGBT issues to the conservative state of South Carolina.
SC Equality PAC, a newly-launched political action committee, is bringing LGBT issues to the conservative state of South Carolina.
SC Equality

Going into the November elections, the SC Equality PAC, a newly-launched LGBT political action committee in South Carolina, had modest expectations for its initial impact on statewide races.

After all, South Carolina has an amendment banning same-sex marriage, has no employment discrimination law covering sexuality, has no hate crimes law and its Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has stated her belief marriage is between a man and a woman.

Yet SC Equality PAC is still working hard to open the political playing field for LGBT issues.

“We are all squarely aware we are in the Bible Belt,” said Todd Shaw, chair of SC Equality PAC. Shaw, a political science and African-American studies professor at the University of South Carolina, said the PAC, which launched in August, sought out and will continue to look for what he calls “fair-minded” candidates for endorsement.

Yet, by the November elections, SC Equality PAC had raised a modest but impressive $9,000 that helped it to endorse seven candidates, including Charleston County Councilwoman Colleen Condon and Paul Tinkler, who ran for South Carolina Senate District 41. While Tinkler did not win, Condon won re-election and will begin serving a third term.

SC Equality PAC, which Shaw noted consists of four board members and an executive director, endorses a candidate for office based on the criteria the candidate is supportive of the PAC’s goal and mission, is supportive of South Carolina’s LGBT families and citizens, and has a viable campaign.

Its mission is: “… to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression and to ensure the dignity, safety and legal equality of all South Carolinians by working to elect fair minded candidates to office, regardless of party affiliation.”

SC Equality is one of several state LGBT PACs in operation.  A national LGBT PAC, the Victory Fund Federal PAC, endorsed Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin and a total of 180 candidates in 2012. But an LGBT PAC in South Carolina is something else altogether given the state’s larger track record on LGBT issues.

Carol Fowler, who sits on the PAC’s board, and is the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, jokes that she is the token “straight person on the board.” She told msnbc.com it’s important for South Carolina’s LGBT community to have individuals in the state legislature who are open to progressive ideas.

Fowler noted that in 2012 political candidates in South Carolina are more open to discussing LGBT issues than they were 10 years ago, yet most state members of the Republican Party remain uninterested.

“I think they don’t want to talk about [LGBT issues],” Fowler said. “They believe that the majority of people in South Carolina are with them on these issues.  Unless they are pressed, they are not going to loosen up. They are always playing to their base.”

SC Equality PAC and the larger South Carolina Equality Coalition, a non-partisan LGBT organization, view anti-bullying efforts as well as job and housing discrimination as essential issues for the state’s LGBT citizens.

But what about the wider push for same-sex marriage equality in South Carolina?

Neighboring North Carolina famously took a massive step backward in May when voters in the state approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

“We know there is groundwork to be done before South Carolina gets to that point,” Shaw continued.  “We are mindful we have to do the hard work to build the alliances in South Carolina. We don’t shy away from our advocacy for the cause, but it’s not something that happens overnight. “

SC Equality PAC recruited members from the state’s LGBT community to volunteer with campaigns before the elections.

Shaw acknowledged that some candidates the PAC may endorse aren’t vocal on the issue of same-sex marriage, but the PAC is supportive of what he calls the candidate’s “evolution.” Remind you of any other recently re-elected Democratic politician?

Condon, the Charleston County councilwoman, says she believes her family court work with the gay community and her work with the Alliance for Full Acceptance, a Charleston-based gay rights organization, put her on the radar of SC Equality PAC.

“It is absolutely critical that we include everybody in Charleston County, and I am engaged with the community.” Condon told msnbc.com

Condon cites employment discrimination and housing and workplace rights as important issues for LGBT residents in the state. She also acknowledges her wish for the state government to offer same-sex partner benefits. In 2006, the state approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Freedom to Marry, a national organization that campaigns for same-sex marriage equality, notes that based on an analysis of the 2010 Census, 7,214 same-sex couples live in South Carolina.

What advice does someone working directly with the LGBT community have for the SC Equality PAC and the candidates it endorses? How can it be more effective?

Melissa Moore, Executive Director of We Are Family, a non-profit offering support to LGBT youth in the state, has a few ideas.

“As the leader of a nonprofit organization that serves LGBT youth, safe schools [are] an important issue to me. Kids are being bullied in schools, and, in many cases, they feel suicidal. At the very least, states should pass safe schools legislation that includes protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Schools should also offer mandatory sensitivity trainings for faculty and staff- something that we as a local organization would be happy to provide.”

Fowler hopes SC Equality PAC will have the chance to advertise in the future.

“I think fundraising spread out over the next two years is essential,” she said. “Reaching out to the LGBT community and letting them know the value of the PAC is important.”

Requests to Gov. Nikki Haley’s office for this story were not returned.

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New LGBT voice emerges in conservative South Carolina

Updated