Meet a Southerner—one from the Deep South, one from a state stained with the dirtier parts of American history, one where the grandmothers keep horrific stories to themselves, one where the hetero, cisgendered norm is predictably staunch but unusually hostile. Meet this Southerner in a liberal American city and when she confesses her home state, listen to the moment just before you say whatever you say—that you’ve rarely or never met a Mississippian, or that New York City must be a culture shock, or even, sometimes, an incredulous, “Really?”
But before you say whatever you say, there’s always a short silence, the air gently sinking as if anticipating an apology. There will be no apology. There is too much to apologize for to even try, and anyway, it’s not this Southerner’s place to speak on behalf of an entire state or region. So you’ll talk about Southern food or Faulkner or Elvis. She’ll find a way to steer the conversation back to you. You’re likely from a nicer part of America, she hopes, somewhere that isn’t polite-ing itself to death.
I’m from the South. My parents are from the South. Their parents were from the South, those parents’ parents were from the South, and it keeps going on like that for quite a while, so I could no sooner dispense of my inherited preoccupation with not offending you than I could extract the calcium from my bones. And though this is a nice thing an awful lot of the time, tiptoeing around offense is not an asset to any decent writer.1 On a broader social level or when mixed with politics, avoiding controversy stymies social progress, encourages systemic oppression, and lets old wounds fester. This is the nasty underside to Southern hospitality and bless-your-heart manners, and this is what I’m too often not talking about when I talk about the South.
For several years during and after graduate school, I tried to write about the large, heavy-doored closet where too many religious and culturally religious LGBT adults in the South seemed to be willfully stowing themselves. As a geeky tomboy who refused to wear dresses for the bulk of my childhood, I was friends with lots of effeminate boys who wanted to craft, listen to show tunes, or audition for the community theater, and when some of them came out (selectively, slowly, and always in private), I was only surprised that many still went to churches that had public stances against homosexuality.
He escaped adolescence with homosexuality that was anything but undone, but when he visits Mississippi, he not only attends a church that officially denounces his choices, but also sings in the choir.
After his parents found out he was gay, one of the men I interviewed was sent to a counselor meant to undo his gayness, a story he told me as if it was a normal part of anyone’s childhood. The counselor’s office was in a strip mall next to a beauty salon, and he wished he could have his nails done when he went. He escaped adolescence with homosexuality that was anything but undone, but when he visits Mississippi, he not only attends a church that officially denounces his choices, but also sings in the choir.
Another man I spoke with avoided coming out to his mother until he’d been living on his own for years. She reacted like many conservative, Protestant mothers have, worried about her baby boy damned to hell, but after some time she softened a little and it became an undiscussed subject, like all uncomfortable things do. He still proudly belongs to a denomination that has anti-gay bylaws, and has even worked for the church. He has faith that the bylaws will eventually be repealed, but isn’t too vocal about it.
Before I started this project, I wanted to believe that LGBT members of churches with anti-LGBT stances must somehow be changing the minds of their congregations from within, but more often I found that it either wasn’t a priority to be too overt about their orientation or gender identity, or they just didn’t feel safe enough to do so. Many insisted that everyone knew they were gay, only no one talked about it.2 Was the South’s inescapable culture of Protestantism creating a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, allowing people to continue belonging to churches that had institutionalized shame?
After a few years of working on this I narrowly escaped a Flannery O’Connor tattoo,3 but too widely escaped my goal of turning all this passion into effective work. I kept producing essays that were either overwrought rants or icily distant and analytical. Part of the problem was that I was writing about the symptoms of a culture that I knew too well to see clearly, that still had its roots of discretion and avoidance wormed deep in me. The tradition of courtesy and avoidance at all costs that stops churches from moving forward was also what was keeping me from ever finishing a piece on this subject. When I hit an inevitable roadblock, I gave up quickly and eventually decided that the topic was somehow impossible, too mercurial to pin down.
A study released by the Public Religion Research Institute in February 2014 reported that nearly one-third of adults ages thirty-three and under have left their childhood religion because of its standing on LGBT issues.4 70 percent of that same age group “believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues,” a belief mirrored by 58 percent of Americans across all age groups. PRRI found that 62 percent of “white mainline Protestants” are in favor of same-sex marriages, while Southerners, overall, are split 48 percent opposing, 48 percent in favor.5 Not too surprisingly, PRRI found that those who self-identify as Evangelical Protestants are the least in favor of same-sex marriage, with only 27 percent believing the LGBT community should have that right. But with public support, even Protestant support, for LGBT rights growing so quickly, why have so many middle-of-the-road churches kept such a retrograde stance on the issue of basic acceptance? And how can anyone within, or allied with, the LGBT movement willfully remain a member of these denominations?
Since I grew up in the United Methodist Church, which is not a particularly conservative or liberal church in the context of the Protestant South,6 I’ll look at their policies on homosexuality as outlined in the denomination’s Book of Disciplines and Book of Resolutions, documents that can only be amended by lay and clergy delegates at General Conference meetings that occur every four years to discuss petitions and resolutions proposed by other groups within the denomination. While gay people are allowed to attend services and receive communion, a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is prohibited from serving as a clergy member, and same-sex marriages are prohibited from being conducted in a United Methodist Church or by a member of the UMC ministry. Church funds are not to be given to any organization that either actively supports the acceptance of homosexuality, or condemns it. Reading these words, I always get the sense that whoever is writing them knows the UMC is not on the right side of history.7 These policies have been debated almost every year since they were put in place in 1972, only one year before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders. While I was writing this essay, Bishop Martin D. McLee, the head bishop of the UMC in New York, pledged to end church trials for ministers in his region who performed same-sex marriages,8 an event that is causing many within the UMC to forecast a coming division of their church into gay-friendly and gay-unfriendly sections.9
Okay, here’s the thing: the LGBT community doesn’t need a “friend” to invite them to a party only to talk shit about them with the host.
Before I say what I want to say, let me qualify it by saying that I love and respect several card-carrying members of the UMC.10 Okay, here’s the thing: the LGBT community doesn’t need a “friend” to invite them to a party only to talk shit about them with the host.11 To say that gay church members are welcome only to kneel beside the rest and try to pray away their gay does nothing but feed the cycle of hate that everyone needs redemption from. There are, whether or not the church believes it, gay church members who see nothing wrong with their sexuality. There are gay organists, gay choir directors, gay preachers, gay everybody everywhere in your pews. They might not be open in their churches, but they are open somewhere, and the only reason it’s not at the pulpit or the altar is the ongoing game of politeness that the South can’t seem to stop playing, but ultimately will be forced to end.12
“The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” The Book of Discipline bluntly states, but certainly thousands of LGBT voices sing their hymns each Sunday. As a non-Christian, I can’t really do much when it comes to changing the UMC bylaws or the public stance of any church, but as an outside observer with a front-row seat, it seems to me that the Methodists (and several other denominations) are only a few difficult discussions away from change. It’s really just a waiting game.
Though the policies of a religious group are not liable to the general public, the laws created and enforced by a democratic government, at least in theory, are required to answer to shifts in public opinion. But when Southern politeness is mixed with politics-as-usual, the results, both presently and historically, are (and have been) disastrous for any meaningful progress or change.13 Given that the Southern states have been in a decades-long, neck-and-neck competition over which might have the worst education, healthcare, and economy, being adverse to change doesn’t seem to be doing them any favors.
This winter, the Mississippi State Senate made a flamboyant display of their paralyzing politeness with a piece of legislation called the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SB 2681). The abstract states that a main objective of the bill is to ensure that “state action or an action by any person based on state action shall not burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion,”14 though it contains a more crowd-pleasing measure—the words “In God We Trust” added to the state seal—a request made by Governor Bryant. Though SB 2681 was only a scant three pages long when it was introduced,15 not a single senator questioned the possibility that SB 2681 could be interpreted as “a license to discriminate.”16 A group of Baptist and Methodist ministers even wrote an open letter arguing the bill was unnecessary and went too far.
What is immediately disheartening about SB 2681 is not the sad fact of its existence, but the way it moved seamlessly through the Senate, as if a bowling ball were thrown into a lake and made no splash. It passed 48-0 in a predominately (though not exclusively) Republican State Senate, and only after a little controversy and protest was stirred up did some senators acknowledge that they may not have thought it all the way through. A House Judiciary Committee slightly tweaked the wording, purportedly (but not fully) removing all discriminatory loopholes, and at the time of writing, it is moving forward and seems likely to be passed. While SB 2681 certainly does not help further anti-discrimination in a state ripe with discrimination, it is somewhat redundant in a state where few would be surprised by a judge ruling in favor of someone who claims religious motivation behind almost any discriminatory act.17
When asked if SB 2681 would provide legal cover for business owners who might refuse service to gay customers on the sole basis of their sexuality, Senator Phillip Gandy, the “author”18 of SB 2681 admitted he was unsure, but that it seemed to him that a business owner in Mississippi “would have the right to do as he chooses,” even without SB 2681. He even offered this imaginative counterexample: what if “someone from a known hate group” asked a business “owned by a gay couple” to cater an event? Maybe this bill would help protect the gays in that situation, he speculated.19
Every Mississippi senator on the floor was too polite to speak out against SB 2681.20 To be the voice who took this opportunity to question the very real discrimination that happens every day in the South would have been to align oneself with those who are discriminated against.21 It would have meant offending someone. It would have meant becoming a target for the vitriol that every Mississippi politician knows good and well is out there. It would have meant drawing a line in the sand and asking everyone to choose sides, to start difficult conversations. Your next election opponent would have an easy out: That guy wants to protect the gays, not the Christians. What’s next, gay marriage? The downfall of society as we know it? I can’t remember or find any evidence of a state-level politician ever holding or continuing to hold office in Mississippi while being actively pro-LGBT rights. In early 2013, Marco McMillan, a black, gay candidate for mayor in Clarksdale, MS, was brutally murdered before he even had a chance to run.
But if SB 2681 passes, and it certainly might, it’ll really just be another nail hammered into something with a fuck-ton of nails in it already. Forget same-sex marriage, which is still super illegal in Mississippi. There has yet to be a single law made that has to do with hate crimes or discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. If your boss fires you and you ask why and he says, “Because you’re gay,” the state government can do nothing for you (unless you live in one of the college towns, where it seems they might be able to do something as of this year.)22 SB 2681 will just protect your boss even more if he claims to be firing you because he’s a Hardcore Pentecostal. (Even same-sex sex between consenting adults was illegal in Mississippi until the federal government overruled those embarrassingly outdated laws in 2003.23)
What fresh twilight-zone, Victorian-era hell is this? And more importantly, why isn’t it showing any signs of getting better as the rest of the country becomes increasingly more inclusive?24 If Phillip Gandy and the rest of the Senate are aware of the existence of homosexuals in their state, why are there no bills protecting them from the violence and discrimination that are constant threats? At the very least they could pull a Starkville25 and acknowledge the existence and basic inherent worth of their citizens who happen not to conform to a narrow set of expectations.
But no one in office wants to be the person to break the silence, to make enemies, to be dragged through the mud that is always wet and waiting.
The hardest thing about being from a place full of opinions and traditions I disagree with is knowing I’m not exempt from being shaped, to some degree, by the culture that has let these retrograde attitudes continue.
In early 2007 I was living in New Orleans.26 The post-Katrina population was still very much shrunken, but the murder rate had bloated to a nauseating degree and new records were being set for deaths per capita. The reasons for this increase were manifold and far too complicated for me to fully describe here,27 but the outcome was that we were losing people nearly every day to violence—mostly young black men to gunshot wounds. Of course, there were kids under thirteen being killed, too, and older people and non-black people and police and plenty of women. Plus, all the sexual and domestic violence that likely wasn’t even being reported out of the faithlessness people had in the NOPD. Roughly two-thirds of murderers were walking free.
The story that touched me most directly was about a young filmmaker and mother named Helen Hill. I had befriended Helen and her family in mid-2006 at a monthly vegan potluck, and a few months later, in January, she was shot to death by an intruder with her husband and toddler as witnesses.
The fact that Helen’s story got a lot of attention became a controversy in itself. Five other murders had already occurred in the twenty-four hours before Helen was killed. Other victims of such horrific, invasive violence had been as active in rebuilding efforts as Helen and Paul. Other young families were torn apart. Other parents were killed in front of their own children. A major difference was that Helen and Paul were white. This opened up an incredibly depressing, and very necessary, discussion about the way that responses to violence within communities still fell along racial lines. A march against violence was staged about a week after Helen’s murder, with many of her friends and community members leading the charge. Regardless of race or class, most New Orleanians felt hopeless as the NOPD were seeming increasingly ineffective.28 Of the 161 murders in New Orleans in 2006, only one person was convicted and none of us harbored high hopes about justice for 2007.29
My initial thought was predictable: it was senseless and insane and horrific. But I was also kind of jealous, in a way, that their massacre was over.
A few months later, the Virginia Tech massacre happened, leaving thirty-three dead and seventeen wounded.30 A producer from MTV News, after I was referred to her by a mutual friend, called to ask if I would participate in a live discussion panel MTV was hosting to discuss campus shootings—a dialogue between college students and others from across the country. She wanted to know if I had anything to say about Virginia Tech.
My initial thought was predictable: it was senseless and insane and horrific. But I was also kind of jealous, in a way, that their massacre was over. The continued media blitz made it clear that the sudden killing of predominantly white, educated people was more important or at least more compelling to Americans than ongoing epidemics of violence in poor, marginalized parts of the country. It had somehow become preferable to know all the sick details about a deranged young man behind a massacre-suicide (and about the letters and photographs he sent to the media) than to think about systemic, present-tense violence. I knew this was all I really had to say about Virginia Tech, the only thing I could offer to the discussion. It would have been a handful of seconds on air, if that, and likely would have only inspired a few woeful shakes of someone’s head before they moved on.
I ended up telling the producer I had nothing to say, but I gave myself other excuses: I was white, privileged, young, and didn’t know enough. I might offend someone, or come off as diminishing their suffering. I didn’t even feel like I was close enough to the epicenter of New Orleans’s violence to be allowed to speak up about it, and it felt unfair that I had even been given this opportunity. What if I seemed shrill and self-righteous, or somehow embarrassed the New Orleans-based activists who were already working hard to raise awareness about these issues? Or what if this was what forever appeared when someone Googled me? Anyway, I was far from blameless. I was one of those people who had been distantly aware and troubled by New Orleans’s violence, but it had taken the proximity I felt to Helen’s murder for me to be shaken and galvanized to the limited degree that I could be.
It took me several years to realize that in that moment I did exactly what drives me insane about Mississippi. I was being too polite, caring too much about appearances or causing offense rather than speaking up in the small way I was offered. And just as I was not blameless, I was beginning to realize that the rest of the country was not exempt from the paralysis of politeness that I felt so heavily in the South. CNN published a minute-by-minute account of what happened at Virginia Tech, and so many of us pored over it, as we do, as if trying to live again in the moments before these kinds of things happen. But who was reading the daily crime reports from New Orleans? Who ever has the stomach to consider unceasing violence? It’s as if we only allow ourselves to consider the hot-button issue of bloodshed and gun violence in America when we think of it as something tragic and strange that already happened.
When I visit Mississippi and someone asks me where I’m from, they rarely believe me when I say, “Here.” I used to be proud of this, the fact that I didn’t, from the outside, conform to the idea of a Southerner. But wanting to distance myself from the South because of its social stasis and history of intolerance is to ghettoize it from the rest of the country, and to refuse to see it as a place that can and will transform in the coming decades.31
The South, as a concept, has become America’s scapegoat when it comes to prejudice and a rejection of progress, and I know that in the ways I have been dismissive of my home state as retrograde, I have been part of the problem.
In this way, the South, as a concept, has become America’s scapegoat when it comes to prejudice and a rejection of progress, and I know that in the ways I have been dismissive of my home state as retrograde, I have been part of the problem. But neither tomorrow’s progress nor today’s bigotry hesitates at state lines. The human rights issues we see writ bold below the Mason-Dixon are American issues.
So when you meet a Southerner in a northern city, know there is so much more to talk about than debutantes and funny accents. We can expect the South to disappoint us, or we can remember that it is still learning how to be impolite in the best way.