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Activists seek same-sex marriage rights in 'unwinnable' U.S. South

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - Same-sex couples stood at government counters in two North Carolina cities on Monday to ask for marriage licenses they knew they would be denied, part of a push across the U.S. South this month to demand equality even where opposition runs deep.

"We have to leave our home state to get married, so that's a little sad," said L. Rankin, 45, after the assistant register of deeds in her city of Winston-Salem refused a license to her and partner Kristin Hedin, 38.

Couples braved rain and potential ridicule to join the "We Do Campaign," an effort by the nonprofit Campaign for Southern Equality to protest state laws activists believe to be unjust and to call for full equality under federal law.

As part of the campaign, couples in seven Southern states are applying for marriage licenses in January. At the final stop on Thursday, couples expect to be denied licenses in Arlington, Virginia, before marching to Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriage is legal.

Participants say they want their neighbors and lawmakers to know they aren't going away, even if taking a stand can be uncomfortable and risky in a part of the country known for its strong religious ties and history of racial discrimination.

"The South has been written off as being unwinnable when it comes to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights," said Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality and a United Church of Christ minister.

"One of the unintended consequences of that is that LGBT people also get written off," she said.

Gay rights activists billed 2012 as a watershed year after voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state approved same-sex marriage, and President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to declare support for such unions.

But the year also brought a sobering reminder for same-sex couples that the momentum lagged in the Southeast. Last May, North Carolina became the last state in the region to add a voter-approved ban on gay marriage to its constitution.

Thirty-one of the 50 U.S. states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Nine states and Washington, D.C., have legalized it.

Some of the 35 couples who have taken part in the "We Do" effort this month have married outside the South but said they still want to live there.

"I can go to a restaurant, and I can order sweet tea and grits and they have them," said Sara Bell, 31, a lifelong resident of Mississippi. "I don't think that I should have to leave those things behind just to be who I am."

STRONG OPPOSITION

Surveys by the Pew Research Center last year showed that while opposition to gay marriage in the South has waned, it is still greater than any other region in the country.

Fifty-six percent of people in the central Southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, oppose allowing same-sex couples to marry, compared with 29 percent who are against same-sex marriage in New England.

The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes allowing same-sex couples to marry, has not taken any action in response to the "We Do Campaign," spokesman Thomas Peters said.

"Obviously these are acts of civil disobedience against laws passed overwhelmingly by voters in those states," he said on Monday.

Support for gay marriage in the South is comparable to where the country as a whole was a decade ago, according to Pew, so activists said their strategy for seeking change their inevitably looks different than in other regions.

The efforts overall are "not very sexy," admits Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

That organization is one of many working to build support for marriage equality at the grassroots level, including training volunteers, developing young leaders and working to change the minds of local politicians.

The task force will hold its annual "Creating Change" conference in Atlanta later this month. Nipper said bringing 3,500 activists to that Southern city will generate excitement and help raise the profile of the issues they want addressed.

With no imminent likelihood of winning same-sex marriage rights at the state level in the South, activists are pressing for national change. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases challenging laws that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Gay rights supporters also are seeking more protections in other areas such as the workplace and schools, said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality.

"I really think that you'll see a faster pace of movement in the years to come," he said. "But we have to take a more incremental approach in what our wins are. And frankly we have to give people the space to change their opinions."

Diana Coe, 48, and Li Hooper, 49, whose 2011 wedding at a church in Winston-Salem is not recognized by the state, said they hope to see attitudes change soon.

"We think of ourselves as being married, and then we realize we are second-class citizens," Coe said.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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