[imgcontainer] [img:ClevelandOne.jpg] Participants at the Tennessee Equality Project's event earlier this week in Cleveland, Tennessee. [/imgcontainer]

A Tennessee marriage-equality group is expanding its organizing efforts beyond big cities to smaller localities, including some rural areas, in advance the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said the group started its outreach to small cities because there are fewer support structures for LGBT residents there and because they were tired of hearing that LGBT rights is only an urban issue.

 “There’s one Constitution for the whole country,” Sanders said. “Equal protection needs to matter in Cleveland, Tennessee, as much as it does in San Francisco, California. Getting there is tough, though.”

The High Court is expected to rule any day on whether to uphold or overturn same-sex marriage bans in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Thirty-seven states now allow same-sex marriage, but the Court’s decision is likely to clarify a national position on whether banning marriage of couples who are the same sex violates the Constitution.

We asked Sanders to share with us the purpose of his group’s rural outreach and why his organization thought focusing on people in small cities and rural areas was important.

Daily Yonder: What prompted you to start a rural outreach program?

Chris Sanders: The idea for the tour really has two inspirations. The first is just the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court decides the big marriage cases this summer, and we wanted there to be a focus on the theme of love throughout the state.

The second inspiration is just something that hit me while driving so much on I-24 and I-40 to bigger cities. I thought, “Why don’t we ever stop along the way?”

So it came together and we realized other benefits as we began thinking it through–such as increased influence with the Legislature and a quicker way to get help to people who are enduring bullying, job discrimination, or hate crimes. We’re already getting those phone calls, but we have not had a great network of help for people in those situations. So visiting more cities actually gives us more capacity. …

Other progressive issue-focused organizations have asked us about the tour because they are considering similar forms of outreach. 

Many LGBT people living in Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis, or Chattanooga came from a small Southern town, so they understand the importance of this kind of work.

DY: What is the purpose of your tour? Why small cities?

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Sanders: One purpose of the tour is to connect LGBT people and allies with one another in smaller towns. We assumed they may not know one another and that proved true in Cleveland, Tennessee [a city of 41,000 northeast of Chattanooga where the tour started this week]. It is also to connect them to the statewide movement for equality and connect them to resources that can make them safer. Where the residents are interested, we are forming committees in the towns we visit so that they can meet monthly to address their needs. It is part of a long-term organizing approach now.

We wanted to focus on smaller towns because we’re making progress in Tennessee’s larger cities with non-discrimination and partner-benefits ordinances. Those cities also have more LGBT organizations to serve them, whereas most rural areas don’t. Frankly, we also need [small towns and rural areas]. The state legislators from these areas often characterize LGBT issues as urban issues and helping them see equality as a constituent issue is going to be critical in Tennessee.

DY: What are your events like? Is there anything different in how you approach events in small cities versus how you approach events in major metropolitan areas?

Sanders: The run of a tour stop includes time for getting to know one another and sharing contact information for those who agree to that. Then we talk about programming related to safer schools, creating safer spaces with the help of local businesses, and preparing for DAY ONE, as we call it, of marriage equality. We come up with area-specific and manageable projects for members of the group. Then we spend a little time documenting stories so we have a better understanding of the particular struggles in the area. 

There is lots of food and fellowship during the time together to build relationships. In an urban setting, we probably wouldn’t share everyone’s contact information with the whole group because people have wider LGBT and ally networks. We also don’t do as much documenting of stories in urban areas because they’re so readily at hand. We also present more formal programs in urban settings whereas on the tour, it is a more relaxed setting.

DY: What’s next for the tour?

Sanders: We will be in McMinnville (population about 14,000, located in central Tennessee) this weekend. Then we’re heading to Dickson (15,000), Maryville (28,000), Morristown (29,000), and Kingsport (53,000). We’re still adding stops. One of the challenges is finding space. We’re fortunate that Cleveland has a great public park system, and we found a really good meeting space that was inexpensive. But it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around where to have an LGBT event if there’s never been one in their city. 

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