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Cover Story - A living, breathing legacy

Center for Civil and Human Rights' new LGBT Institute tells movement's story

On the opening night of the LGBT Institute, executive director Ryan Roemerman overheard a common refrain from the older activists in attendance. "'Oh my God, I can't believe we made it,'" he recalls them saying as they viewed the expansive timeline of Atlanta's LGBT rights movement dating back to the Stonewall era. "It was just overwhelming to them — to think that the things they were doing because they knew they were right would end up at a center for civil rights and put them in the context that their work was important for all human beings."

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It's the validating power of such storytelling — and, when necessary, correcting of the historical record — that the Center for Civil and Human Rights' new LGBT Institute intends to harness through partnerships and platforms built on intersectionality. That mission helps make the center much more than a museum.

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"The center was never meant to just be a museum," Roemerman says. "It was meant to be a platform for engagement." With that in mind, the institute intends to play an active role in furthering LGBT rights in the South while providing a forum for the activist and advocacy work being done by existing organizations. "We don't need to recreate the wheel and there are already people doing great work. If we can partner with them on this work, that's the way we want to do it."

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The institute's programming board consists of a broad cross-section of regional leaders, including Atlanta-based transgender advocates Dee Dee Ngozi Chamblee (founder, LaGender, Inc.) and Tracee McDaniel (founder, Juxtaposed Center for Transformation, Inc.). The board has designated three big-picture areas of focus: criminal justice and safety, public health and wellness, and education and employment. The umbrella categories were created from a list of more than 40 issues — from LGBT domestic violence to income inequality — and are part of a conscious effort to focus on the most marginalized within the movement. And it just so happens that many of the problems disproportionately impact the South.

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"None of the 14 Southern states have passed any kind of employment non-discrimination legislation," says Roemerman, whose work as director of the Iowa Pride Network led to Iowa becoming the first Midwest state to grant marriage equality in 2009. Before moving to Atlanta to head up the LGBT Institute, he worked in New York as a consultant for a company that helped major corporations understand why being LGBT-friendly was both a good thing and good for the bottom line. "By and large, the South has not benefitted from this progression, even though more LGBT people of color, and LGBT people in general, live in the South than any other region in the country."

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While the nation has benefitted from the Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage, the South continues to suffer unduly from issues that have long been overshadowed by mainstream efforts like the hard-won fight for marriage equality. "Everybody within the LGBT community isn't going to readily benefit from marriage," Roemerman says. "Marriage in itself is a pretty privileged institution."

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A goal of the newly inaugurated institute is to embrace the entire spectrum of the LGBT community, including its most radical representations. Roemerman points to the historical inaccuracy of the recent Stonewall film as a prime example of the importance of story.

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"The fact that the film is taking focus off of black trans women and drag queens who started the movement is an affront to our history," he says. "Which is why it's not just about telling history but also correcting it. And I've been happy to see a variety of organizations say this is not our history. This is whitewashed, this is a revisionist view of what our history is."

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That's why the institute's programming board is focused on recognizing the history and magnifying the contemporary movement through research, symposiums and the annual awarding of The LGBT Institute Medals. The institute's first major event on Nov. 2 will pair Ruth Messinger, the CEO of American Jewish World Service, the fourth largest international fundraiser for LGBT issues, with several other speakers to highlight the institute's three areas of focus. The plan is to develop a research arm within the institute, Roemerman says, who has been engaging with a few universities to begin mapping that out.

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"There is a lot of work to be done and part of that work is changing hearts and minds and telling the story," he says. "The fact that we have a venue like this in which to do so leaves me very hopeful."



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