01/07/2013 11:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Taking a Stand for Equality in Mississippi

Earlier this week, I had the honor of being with five couples in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as they requested marriage licenses at the Forrest County Circuit Clerk's Office through the WE DO Campaign. They were denied, as we all knew they would be, due to current marriage laws in Mississippi.

That denial is one of the main reasons for WE DO actions. Discriminatory laws that treat LGBT people as second-class citizens in the South are typically invisible because they are rarely enforced. But when they are enforced, something new happens: everyone involved must engage with the reality that LGBT people live in every town in the South, that we are fully human and yet second-class citizens under the law, and that we are calling for full equality under federal law.

There's a double-edged quality to LGBT life here: day in and day out, you love the South as your home, a relationship between person and place that can be foundational. More and more people -- our families, friends and neighbors -- are supportive of our lives and ready to stand up for our equality. And yet there is great pressure to hide who you truly are, who you truly love, and how your life is truly conducted. With this pressure comes the threat that if you challenge this system, you will suffer for it. You feel that, whether in lingering stares or averted gazes as someone tries to suss out if you are a man or a woman when you dress the way that actually feels most natural to you; in the chilly silence or muttered disapproval when a gay couple acts like a couple by actually holding hands or exchanging a kiss in public; in the fear that if the wrong person sees you in the wrong place, you might get fired or evicted, with little recourse. You know it in the stories you hear from friends, or hold in your own past -- of being kicked out of your home, of being discharged from the military, of the suicide attempt.

In other words, there are a lot of reasons for these couples not to have taken this action. Every Southern state (and a majority of states in the U.S.) fails to provide legal protections from employment and housing discrimination. There is also the risk that family may cut ties. Each of these couples, and those standing with them, weighed these risks against the cost of continuing to submit to unjust laws. For those who took action in Hattiesburg, the answer was clear -- not necessarily easy, but clear. But for every person who takes part in a WE DO action, many others we work with decide they cannot, for just these reasons. In this way, those who requested a license in Hattiesburg did so on behalf of many other LGBT people across the South.

Human realities often transcend legal realities. The law in Mississippi -- or my home state of North Carolina -- bans same-sex marriage. It says it can't exist. And yet it does. My wife and I are married, legally and in our hearts, but are legal strangers according to North Carolina state law. In Petal, Miss., Rolanda and Dawn have been together for nine years and are raising their young daughter. "We're proud of who we are and our family," Rolanda said after their application was denied. "We want to make a stand. We're here too."

In these human realities reside powerful moral truths. LGBT people are fully equal and fully human. We love, we create family and we do everything in our power to protect our family.

Yet we are told that we must wait for equal protection under the law, or that we should simply move to another state. Neither answer is morally adequate. We can't wait for our rights for as long as it would take Southern states to grant them; the human consequences are too profound. And we can't just move. You should not have to leave your home state to be treated as an equal citizen in America.

That's why when we take these actions, we are calling for full equality under federal law, which is the most efficient pathway to equality for LGBT people in the South. Through these actions, we hope not just to resist discriminatory laws in an embodied way, but also to tell our country a new story about the urgent need for federal equality.

It's hard to put into words how powerful it is to stand with these couples, especially knowing what might be at stake for them.

In the days since this action, we have gotten messages from youth in Mississippi who are wrestling with coming out and said that seeing this action gave them a sense of what might be possible. It's not enough to tell kids things will get better; we have to keep pushing until it is safe for any youth or adult in the South to come out and be who they truly are, with the guarantee of full protection under the law.

And that's the other reason we take these actions: to prefigure the future. In the years to come, there will be a day when LGBT couples can approach the counter in Hattiesburg, Miss. and be served.

As I stood there watching couples apply for marriage licenses and then watching staff deny their requests with a mix of warmth and detachment that is familiar in Southern life, memories and images flooded my mind. What I witnessed was yet another powerful reminder of how nuanced and complex the interplay of history, race, religion and sexuality is in the South. I thought about growing up in the eighties as a gay white kid in North Carolina, where in our public schools I learned for the first time about the history of that courthouse in Hattiesburg, where African-Americans registered to vote -- or attempted to -- during the Civil Rights Movement, often met by violence as they approached the building, often arrested.

I thought about being a newly out college student and studying for a semester in the nineties at Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Jackson, Miss. There, I learned that history in more depth. I also fell in love with Mississippi, even as I struggled to stay out in an environment where homosexuality was rarely mentioned, and, if it was, was regarded with condemnation or derision. I thought about my wife and our life together now in Asheville, NC, and the palpable feeling that we are living through a time in which change is taking place, as if the fault lines beneath us are shifting.

People change. Laws change. Our country changes. But it never happens on its own. That's why we'll keep taking action with the WE DO Campaign until LGBT people in the South are fully equal under federal law.