I have lived in the South for my entire life and have called Mississippi home for the past 15 years. Let's just say that I know how Mississippi and other Southern states operate by now. It seems that every day in the news, some Southern state is lagging behind the others. Usually it is in terms of equality, whether that be related to race, education, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Growing up gay in the South has been far from easy.
My earliest memory of the word "gay" is of hearing it on television, when I saw Matthew Shepard's face cover the screen. I was 5 years old. I had probably heard my parents mention it before then, but that was the first time that it truly stuck. Throughout my childhood my older sisters and brothers had gay friends, so I knew early on what being "gay" meant. However, it's important to note that my experience was not like the experiences of most gay people from the South whom I've talked to. Most gay men I know grew up only hearing about homosexuality in church, always discussed as a sin, so they never considered it in any other way. Homosexuality was not something that was talked about in schools or in the larger community. My school did not have a gay-straight alliance or any sort of place for LGBTQ people to go and seek comfort. There were only three openly gay people in my high school, and they were alone. It was until I was in sixth grade that the term "gay" was directed toward me. At that point I had not yet realized that other boys didn't think the same way I did. I still remember the first time I heard it. Two boys in my sixth-grade class confronted me and said I played "lightning" and "sword fighting." When I asked why, they said, "Because you are gay." It was not until I got older that I realized what the connection between "gay" and "sword fighting" might be. As for "lightning"? Maybe I am missing out on something fun there. Compared with the name calling that would soon ensue, "gay" was the easiest. Throughout high school, "fag" and "queer" were dropped on me on a daily basis. Of course, in the privacy of my room, I was struggling with whether I was gay.
Now, looking back, I understand that they did not really want to know whether I was in fact gay. They did not want details or confirmation of my sexuality. For a long time I assumed that they wanted me to admit it, but I learned that that was not necessarily the case. In fact, they were hoping that I didn't. You see, in the South there is this understood "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding homosexuality, it seems. People assume that you are gay, but they do not really want to know. Even if they ask, demand, or tell you that you are, deep down they do not want to know what you do in your bed with another man, or whose hands you hold when you cuddle in front of a movie. People here do not want that image in their heads. They want to remain in their own bubble, with their own view of the world. The religious want to stay as "holy" as possible and not have to view or witness "sin." The social conservatives do not agree with it. It is a fact that the South is the socially conservative "Bible belt," and the majority would rather ignore it altogether. The subject seems to want to be avoided. Unlike other states that seem to always be fighting for marriage equality, Southern states seem to never bring it up. Legislation for the protection of the LGBTQ community never seems to go very far. The laws that do go far are laws like Tennessee's "don't say gay" bill and North Carolina's constitutional amendment banning gay people from ever marrying in that state.
In many ways, the LGBTQ community in the South is complicit in this state of affairs. When I look at the LGBTQ people on my own campus, I witness the "don't tell" aspect. They do not want to be open; they do not want to hold hands in Walmart, kiss at the movies, or wear pride shirts to class. A majority of the LGBTQ community in the South seems to live their lives never showing their pride. They may be open to their close family and friends, but they hide it in public, as well as from their employers, fellow church congregants and certain family members. They may be LGBTQ and proud, but they allow others to read that for themselves and never say it out loud. A lot of this may have to do with the way they were raised. Many are from the South, like me, and have been subjected to bullying, prejudice, and hate speech for their whole lives. Some of it may be fear: fear of losing their job, their family, their friends or their church. I have heard too many stories of friends who came out to their families only to get a door in the face and told never to come home. Maybe that's why we feel the need to not let it show. There are times that I have carefully picked out what to wear in order to avoid seeming "too gay," or watched how I carried myself in public in order to avoid getting talked about. Maybe we have become so accustomed to the South not asking that we just do not feel the need to tell anymore. We become just as guilty of feeding into this understood "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Granted, not every LGBTQ person in the South is like this. I know many LGBTQ people who show their pride and couldn't care less about the status quo here. But they are a minority within a minority. I would like to think that my boyfriend of two years, Jay, and I are out and proud. We are open on Facebook and to our friends and family, and we are not shy about showing affection in public. This past summer, while attending Point Mallard, a water park in Decatur, Ala., with my family, park officials asked us not to display PDA, telling us that the guests found it disturbing. They had had complaints because Point Mallard is a "family" establishment. But my boyfriend and I had been doing nothing more than sitting on the same lounge chair, not even touching. This is an example of Southern society not wanting to open their minds to something different. They want to live their lives not knowing what I as a gay person experience or do. Many Southern LGBTQ people in return want to live their lives in private and not have to say what they experience and do.
I think we need to change this. We need to stand up and break down this "don't ask, don't tell" policy that seems to loom over us. We as a society need to understand that it is important for us to open our eyes to the unfamiliar. Not everything is black and white, but that does not make it wrong. This policy that seems to exist is probably not just present in the South. I have a feeling that in small cities across the nation, these same problems exist. We need to be accepting of the melting pot of culture that this country has and not be afraid to start conversations about LGBTQ issues. We cannot breed another generation of people who fear growing up and being LGBTQ. We cannot continue to allow coming out of the closet to be a death sentence. At some point we have to progress. At the same time, the LGBTQ community needs to be open to this change. We need not hold back our relationships, our feelings, our experiences, or our pride. We are the ones shaping future generations. We are the ones living this battle right now. We must make this a safer and more open world than the one we grew up in. We owe that much to the LGBTQ youth in this country. These past few years have been major stepping stones in the fight for equality. In order to continue this progress, we need to celebrate that and continue to show the normalcy that is homosexuality. We repealed the official "don't ask, don't tell" policy over two years ago. Let's abolish this one as well.