An Interview with Eva Walton Kendrick on Lobbying for LGBTQ Rights in the South

Eva Walton Kendrick gave a lecture on April 26, 2017 as part of the Center’s Radical South Brown Bag Lecture Series. Before the lecture, Chris Colbeck interviewed Eva about her work as an advocate for LGBTQ rights in Alabama. Watch a clip here, and read a full transcript below.

Interview with Eva Walton Kendrick on Lobbying for LGBTQ Rights from The Southern Documentary Project on Vimeo.

Eva Walton Kendrick serves as the Human Rights Campaign’s Alabama State Manager. Kendrick holds an MA in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and a BA in Southern Studies from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Her research interests include twentieth-century social history, religious history, and social movements. Kendrick joined the staff of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest civil rights organization work to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Americans, in 2014. In her current role, Kendrick leads the state staff in their work to achieve full legal equality for LGBTQ Alabamians, while changing institutions—and hearts and minds— through engagement with corporate and healthcare partners, faith outreach, and community development. Kendrick lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her wife, Kathryn Kendrick.


CC: I know this might be difficult, but would you mind giving a
brief synopsis of your lecture today?

EWK: Sure. What I will be discussing today is ‘Lobbying the
Heart of Dixie.’ This idea of LGBTQ advocacy, as it is happening at
the Alabama State House. The nuance, the strategy, how we approach
conversations with members of the legislature from both sides of the
aisle to try and reach positive next steps; to number one, ensure
basic civil rights and nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ
Alabamians and at the same time, bring along legislators who can be
our allies and our voices from the republican, more conservative, side
of the aisle into these committee meetings to really push for more
common sense and fair legislation in future legislative sessions. So,
really talking through, what does that work look like, where are the
challenges, how is our strategy being developed to move around them
and with them, so that we can prevent fighting these battles over and
over and over again over time.

CC: Can you describe or discuss your role as the manager of the Human Rights Campaign in Alabama?

EWK: Absolutely. So Human Rights Campaign’s permanent office
in Birmingham, Alabama is extremely unique. There are only two others
outside of Washington DC., one in Jackson Mississippi and one in
Little Rock, Arkansas. So my job as the state director for Human
Rights Campaign in Alabama, is to ensure full equality for LGBTQ
Alabamians under the law, but at the same time changing institutions
and hearts and minds through engagement with our corporate and
healthcare equality partners, through faith outreach, and community
development with direct service LGBTQ organizations. To make sure we
are moving forward relationally and not transactionally.

CC: Are there particular challenges for the LGBTQ community in Alabama?

EWK: So LGBTQ Alabamians have actually zero protections when it comes
to federal or state nondiscrimination policies around housing, public
accommodation and credit. The conversation is changing a bit with
employment with the Title VII decision from last month, but right now
our 430 incorporate municipalities across the state of Alabama, out of
those, zero have municipal policies that allow immediate
accountability for LGBTQ persons to say, ‘Listen, I’ve been withheld
an opportunity with employment, I’ve been evicted because I got
married last weekend, I’ve been told I can’t access credit because I
am a transgender man.’ There is no accountability and so when you have
that un-level playing field, you have ways that Alabamians who are
LGBTQ identified are withheld from the same opportunities as other
Alabamians. And so this is compounded and highlighted for persons who
identify as LGBTQ and also live at the margins of other minority
identities. They are often targeted negatively by the policies that
our legislators and our mayors and city counselors move forward. So
Alabamians have stark contrasts in front of them. Forty percent of
Alabamians (LGBTQ) have been harassed at their job in the last month.
We know that more than half of Alabamians who are LGBTQ identified
don’t believe their doctors are going to be LGBTQ friendly so they
don’t come out or they don’t seek medical treatment. We know that
LGBTQ persons who are young people are experiencing massive spikes in
bullying and hate speech and hate violence since the election of
Donald Trump. Over seventy percent of LGBTQ young people, post 2016
election, say they don’t feel as confident about their futures as they
did prior. And so we are really working to make sure that we are
changing institutions, we’re changing workplaces, we’re changing
healthcare institutions, but we are also changing our communal
institutions so that we can make life better for those young persons
who are disproportionately affected by hate speech, hate violence, and
in turn, self-harm and potential suicide. That is where we want to
make sure young people know they are valued, they’re loved, but more
importantly, there are people fighting for them in every part of their

CC: Academia and activism have been closely linked for many
decades, but lately, there is a sense many academics have been even
more compelled to offer their voices to social movements.  When you
consider the term ‘scholar activists,’ do you think of your own
academic career as serving your role in today’s civil rights

EWK: When I was studying here at the University of
Mississippi and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, one of
my motivating factors in studying American religious history and the
civil rights movement was looking at how when people say, ‘God is on
our side,’ I wanted to know more about that god. I wanted to know how
that person describes that god. What pronouns do you use? What does
that god care about? What songs and hymns does that god fit into? What
theology are we talking about with that god? Because it helps me as an
academic think through how I build bridges with you. How do I see the
big picture here and find my targets which is quite a
historiographical approach to take. Here is the whole big picture and
here is where I am going because I see a space where we can make some
progress. So for me, when I studied Catholics in the Natchez civil
rights movement, I never expected that work would lead to my activism
in the LGBTQ movement, but there are such correlations.

When I walk into a legislator’s office in the state house for
instance, number one, they don’t know what to do with me. I look like
their niece. I can speak their language. I understand their theology.
And yet, I am asking them to consider voting for a hate crimes bill.
Or, I am asking them to consider not voting for a bill that would
limit the number of LGBTQ prospective foster and adoptive parents
accessible to the more than 5,500 children who need homes. But, when I
walk in and I can bring the history side of things, I can bring the
sociological side of things, the anthropological side of things, into
my conversations in ways they do not even realize. I am using that
data and I am using that scholarly element to move them. To say, ‘This
is what I need you to do and here is why I think you can make this
decision.’ It is rooted in my own academic understanding. They never
need to know that and ideally, they will think it was their own idea,
but the work comes in because I know this background. I know this lay
of the land because of my studies in history and because of my
experience here at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. I
think anyone who is doing activism meaningfully, brings some ‘scholar
activism’ into that work.

CC: Eva, I usually conclude by asking visiting lecturers if they
have any words of wisdom for today’s students.

EWK: I would tell students that every minute counts. Every
class counts. Every book you read and every thought at a roundtable
discussion that challenges you, it all matters. And, it will all make
you the better scholar, the better community member, and the better
professional in whatever field you go into because you’ll have this
wide breadth of experience and of study. So take every moment and make
it the best you can. Listen carefully to your peers. Note the themes
of conversation. You will hear them again. Be present to what is
happening around you because the things that you see in your studies
are the things that you see in real life. And, when you learn as a
student to be adaptable, to be in conversation with persons, to listen
intently and at the same time, be seeing ways to connect dots that
others don’t see, which is a Humanities education, that is what will
serve you well no matter what field you enter. I always say when you
go into any field, go by two main tenets; kindness matters and data
speaks. If you can find the data and you can find a way to kindly get
your message across no matter what decision maker you need to make a
choice. If you can really follow the data and you can come into
conversation with people as a kind person who is also driven to get
something done, you will do well. You will succeed and you will also
reflect well on the University of Mississippi.