Last March, I spent time in Alabama interviewing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of all ages about the future of LGBT rights in their state. Most were optimistic that the wave of change sweeping through the country would eventually make its way to Alabama, a state made infamous in the 1960s for its then-governor’s defiance of federal attempts to end school segregation. Still, few of the people I talked to thought that change would come quickly.
Then, in January, a federal judge struck down the state’s marriage ban. In light of the historic changes taking place in Alabama, I reached out to Nick Long, a 25-year-old gay student at the Montgomery branch of Auburn University with whom I spoke a year ago. Last spring, Long didn’t think he’d ever see the law change to protect Alabama's LGBT people from discrimination and allow gays and lesbians to marry. “Maybe when we’re dead,” he said then.
“And I am having to eat my fucking words,” Long said in a phone interview this week.
Conservative leaders in the state are now doing what they can to ensure that Long’s initial prediction remains accurate. This week, the Alabama Supreme Court ordered state judges to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples -- thus becoming the first high state court in the nation to challenge a federal court allowing same-sex marriage. Long, like other Alabamans I have interviewed, is hardly surprised by this development. After all, Roy Moore, the chief justice of that court, is one of the most prominent opponents of marriage equality in the country. In 2002, he became a villain in the eyes of gays and lesbians everywhere when he argued in a court ruling that the state should use “confinement and even execution" to prevent the "subversion of children" toward the gay and lesbian "lifestyle." He hasn’t changed his tune.
Still, said Long, “I do feel more optimistic now.” Long knows that change comes slowly and in fits and starts -- he’s seen it happen in his own family.
When he first told his parents he was gay, at 13 years old, his mother looked at him and said “You make me sick,” he recalled this week. Then she went into the bathroom and threw up. His father glared at him: “Look what you’ve done.”
For years after that, the family refused to acknowledge Long’s sexuality, and he didn’t press the issue. Last March, at a meeting of the gay-straight alliance at school, he admitted that his family didn’t know where he was at the moment. "I live at home,” he told the group. “I tell my dad, 'I'm going to an event.' He says, 'What event?' I say, 'Just an event.'"
But over the past year, he’s let his guard down a bit. In February, on the day that gays and lesbians in the state were first allowed to marry, Long came home from an event still wearing a Human Rights Campaign T-shirt.
At the kitchen table, his dad said he was OK with Long’s sexuality, but he urged him to conceal it when out in public. After his father walked off, Long turned to his mother and asked her, “If I had a gay wedding, would you come?” Long recalled. “She said, ‘Honestly Nick, I’d come, but I’d feel uncomfortable.’”
“I’m really proud of her for saying that,” he said. Both his parents grew up in conservative homes in Alabama. His father’s father was in the military, and his mother grew up in a household where interracial dating was “a rule that they were not allowed to break," Long said. "I have some family members to this day that you had better not bring anyone home of a different color."
So, for today, Long is feeling hopeful. He knows the struggle isn't over, and he understands that people in other parts of the country might not see his mother’s ambivalence as much of a victory. "They’d be like, ‘She should accept you fully,’” he said. But this is Alabama. “For me," he said, "this is a huge stepping stone."
Read my earlier story, "'Maybe When We're Dead': Gays In Alabama Don't Expect Change In Their Lifetime -- But They're Pushing For It Anyway," here.