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ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- The push for marriage equality and other civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people gained momentum Saturday with a full day of workshops designed to galvanize the movement throughout the southern states and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The two-day "LGBT in the South" conference, sponsored by the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, the Hart Law Group and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, began Friday with a focus on legal issues, including tax law, estate planning and Social Security and employee and veterans benefits.

More than 250 participants from eight southern states, as well as Utah and New York, attended Saturday's free conference sessions on topics such as faith and LGBT advocacy, using social media as a campaign tool, multi-issue organizing, transgender resources and services, tax equality and tactics for grassroots organizing.

At the heart of the conference was the belief that collaboration and networking among myriad groups working on equality issues will make the movement stronger and its goals more attainable.

"People are really fired up," said Lindsey Simerly, campaign director for the Campaign for Southern Equality's We Do project, during a mid-day break. "Everyone recognizes that we're in this together."

While the conference addressed a variety of subjects, the overriding focus was on the quest for changes in state and federal law that would allow same-sex couples to enjoy the full rights of marriage and the more than 1,000 federal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.

Among the presenters Saturday were Michael Crawford and Jake Loesch, staff members with the national Freedom to Marry campaign, which launched a new strategic initiative on Feb. 24 in Atlanta called Southerners for the Freedom to Marry. Among the participants in the kickoff were Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

The $1 million campaign, in partnership with 12 equality organizations in the South, is designed to build majority support for the freedom to marry in the South and will include "significant field and media work over the next year."

"Our sole focus is on winning the freedom to marry nationwide," Crawford said.

"The South has an incredible, crucial role to play, and it's been absolutely amazing to see the on-the-ground, grassroots work already going on," Loesch added.

Southerners for the Freedom to Marry will have a major emphasis on social media and outreach, with a "huge emphasis" on sharing the personal stories of same-sex couples and their families through online videos, Crawford said.

Opponents of same-sex marriage, or those on the fence, will often change their views once they have a glimpse into the everyday lives of loving couples and the children they are raising together.

'Collaboration is vital'

Mark Maxwell, who lives in Winston-Salem with his husband, Timothy Young-Maxwell, and their four adopted sons, attended the weekend conference and was in the room when Crawford and Loesch screened the Campaign for Southern Equality's video about his family's life.

The short film depicts the couple, together for 23 years, being legally married last year in front of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., only to return to North Carolina to be denied legal recognition and "become second-class citizens again," Maxwell said.

The couple's experiences, including the web of complications involved in adopting their sons, compelled them to work with the Campaign for Southern Equality on the video and in the We Do campaign and led Maxwell to write his doctoral dissertation on second-parent adoptions.

After attending the conference in Asheville, Maxwell said he feels hope that major shifts in public opinion and the law are on the horizon.

"I believe the U.S. Supreme Court will do the right thing for our country and change our course by bringing equality to not only the South but to the rest of the country," he said. "I think the collaboration of all of these organizations is vital, and it's not just a conversation on LGBT issues — it's the rights of women, Latinos, African-Americans — all of the 'isms."

The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferarra, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, agreed there is much work for her nonprofit and other social justice organizations to do, individually and collaboratively. But the LGBT in the South conference was a major shot in the arm for the movement, she said.

"This has been everything I hoped for, and more," Beach-Ferarra said. "I'm totally thrilled by the energy here. It's been a wonderful two days."

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