Courts and communities: Tools for long-term change?

I was listening to a few friends discuss their adjustment to living in Boston.  One friend is from the West Coast originally, and was remarking that although where he’s from is legally somewhat centrist, socially it’s a very progressive environment (ripe for activism).  He was remarking that Boston is the exact opposite.  Rife with legal protections, he says (including marriage equality and one of the most forward-thinking state-level LGBTQ youth commissions in the country), it’s been difficult for him to agitate and organize for social change.  He says the vibe is different.

He should come and visit me in Alabama.

While I can’t speak for Boston, I’ve been reflecting on the need for legal and social progressivism to feed each other if at all possible here in the Deep South.  The work that brought me to Mississippi in 2007 was a lovely mixture of community organizing and legal work.  Keep in mind that I’m a social worker, so my role wasn’t as an attorney or paralegal.  My role, largely, was to build community relationships and refer cases to our staff attorney.  Two of the more high-profile cases were the Ceara Sturgis tuxedo case and the Constance McMillen prom case.  Both received national (and in some cases international) attention.  While both lawsuits were largely successful (Constance won her case and received monetary compensation and forced the school to hold prom; Ceara settled and has since had her photo put up in the high school lobby with the other seniors), I wonder if legal action has really changed anything for the LGBTQ and ally students who remain in these towns and the towns like them around the Deep South.  It’s important to note here that being able to take a same-sex date to prom or to wear the attire that fits your gender identity and expression is settled law (old news, so to speak).  So despite having these already-established precedents, the socially conservative contexts of small-town Mississippi were choosing to ignore the law and have been doing so for decades.

I wonder how queer youth are faring in Fulton, Mississippi where Constance went to high school.  I suspect that there was a backlash after Constance’s case was resolved, the media crews left town, and the attorneys moved on to the next case.  I would bet it’s been harsh and severe and many youth who are queer in Fulton will wait until they leave home and/or go to college to come out.  Legal organizations, especially ones that poach cases from outside the Deep South without roots here, have a very bad habit of setting up camp for a lawsuit and leaving as soon as it’s been resolved.  While I by no means am undermining the importance of legally asserting the rights of marginalized people, the law is but one tool in the toolbox.  Not all of those harmed by legally and socially unjust circumstances have access to the law as a tool of social change, being constrained by access and time and fear of becoming a plaintiff and the consequences and strain on the plaintiff and their families that a lawsuit may bring.  The youth we worked with seemed ready for the consequences, both the good and the bad, that pushing a legal suit would entail.  But what if we envisioned a more holistic approach of going about this?

Social change has to accompany progressive legal challenge, especially in conservative areas of the Deep South. I’ve witnessed school systems in particular become more emboldened when threatened with a lawsuit.  Keep in mind that Constance’s school-chose to cancel the school-sponsored prom rather than let her attend in a tuxedo with her girlfriend.  It took a federal judge to order the school to host the prom, and even when they put it back on parents conspired to host a private, “non-gay” prom in lieu of sending their children to the school-sponsored prom.  This reaction isn’t an anomaly.  Schools and communities here, steeped in tradition and conservative values, don’t have epiphanies and make radical change for inclusion and social justice when a lawsuit or a new law is passed.  It takes work, ongoing conversations with neighbors and family members over Thanksgiving turkey.  It takes a determination to introduce progressive legislation year after year, knowing that the victory may be a handful of additional co-sponsors instead of the passage of the bill.  The victory may be only one co-sponsor, but a hard-fought one.  The one is a big deal, and you stuck around long enough to appreciate it.

Progressive legal change is necessary, and I applaud those helping make it happen.  But to the one-and-done vultures that pick the low-hanging fruit: know that you might not be making things better in the long run.  You may fill your organization’s coffers with donations by beating up on the South, but you may be making things worse for those of us who remain and do the real work of progressive change in the long run.