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Supporting LGBTQIA+ Communities During Pride Month and Beyond

The Rockefeller Foundation stands in solidarity with LGBTQIA+ communities globally, and we mark Pride Month this year in a variety of ways. Read below about our support for the trans community in the American South, see Dr. Rajiv Shah's statement on Uganda, hear why LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights, and more.

Homeless for nine years starting at age 14, later fired from his job for beginning his gender transition, Jack Knoxville has witnessed dramatic change in how the U.S. transgender population is treated.

That change is apparent from when he began his own identity journey in 2002, but became especially evident after he ran for political office in 2015, and then kicked off the Trans Empowerment Project with a clothing swap a year later. 

So there is cause to celebrate this Pride Month.

But there is also a need to continue to press forward to support a population that Knoxville notes was, not so long ago, “essentially invisible,” even as gay rights increased nationwide. 

Pride Month began after the Stonewall Riots, a series of gay liberation protests in 1969, and has since spread outside the United States.

In honor of Pride Month, The Rockefeller Foundation made donations to seven organizations defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, plus (LGBTQIA+), including the Appalachian Community Fund’s LGBTQ Fund. That Fund, which strongly champions grassroots and community activism, has helped finance Knoxville’s group. 

The Trans Empowerment Project, a nonprofit founded in Knoxville, TN., and now based in Jacksonville, N.C., has reached a community of about 25,000 and provided direct aid to some 2,500—including food, clothing, emergency transportation, self-defense kits, Hormone Replacement Therapy support, and inmate commissary funds, for the trans and non-binary population. 

  • We’re proud to support people who are advancing equity at all levels, but especially those who pioneering progress for LGBTQIA+ individuals within their communities. That’s where progress becomes personal.
    John Spangler
    Director, Communications, Policy and Advocacy, The Rockefeller Foundation

A Mayoral Run Raises Profile of Trans Rights Struggle

Knoxville, 43, became the first trans man to seek political office in the Southern U.S., running for mayor of Knoxville in 2015. Though he didn’t win the seat, “I won what I wanted to,” he said. “I got that area to start talking about trans lives and taking trans people seriously. Up to that point, we were invisible.”

Participant in Pride Festival in Knoxville, TN
Knoxville, Tennessee Pride Festival 2023. (Photo courtesy of Knox Pride)

More than one third of all LGBTQIA+ Americans live in the South; however, they often lack basic legal protections, face political attacks, and experience health and income inequities. A lack of adequate data for those identifying as LGBTQIA+, particularly around issues of poverty and access to public benefits, has effectively served as a form of erasure.  

So far in 2023, 40 percent of anti-LGBTIA+ bills introduced by state legislatures have been in the South. 

Bills restricting medically appropriate care for trans individuals and drag performances have gained national recognition, especially Tennessee’s “drag ban,” which was deemed unconstitutional this month by a federal judge. 

“The young and the not-so-young LGBTQIA+ people who live in Appalachia have dreams, and they do not accept boundaries that dictate you have to go to the big cities to find freedom to be your whole self,” said Walter Davis, Regional Organizer for the Appalachian Community Fund, who began working on social justice issues as a teenager. “We have the people prepared to do the work. They need the material resources to achieve it.” 

The U.S. trans population is fighting for a cultural shift, Knoxville said. “There are norms in the South, and you are not supposed to rock the boat. If you as a trans person get attacked, that’s seen as your fault—you should have thought about that before you left home today. We have to fight this attitude.” 

  • Pride Activist in Tennessee holds sign
    Pride Activist in Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Winter Cayman)
Participants of Pride Festival in Tennessee
Gatlinburg, TN, Pride Festival 2023. (Photo courtesy of Winter Cayman)

Time for Joy

At the same time, there is an unprecedented level of public support for LGBTQIA+ equality in the South, suggesting that continued progress for equality is possible with additional resources.  

And it is overdue for the trans community to be able to experience the world in a more joyful way, Knoxville said. 

“Things can seem daunting and hopeless at times, and the trans community becomes paralyzed—I’m not immune from that by any means,” Knoxville said. “But we need to take back the narrative. Let’s not lift up our trauma. Let’s start to experience the world in a way more rooted in joy.” 

Knoxville believes the facts support his optimism. “The number of those speaking out on behalf of our rights is growing,” he said. 

  • And as far as I’m concerned, when I hear anger and fear, that is the sound of white supremacy crumbling. Every time they get noisier, the support in our inbox gets louder too.
    Jack Knoxville
    Founder, Trans Empowerment Project