In Southernisms, we look at common southern phrases, practices, foods, music, or culture, usually after allowing readers to comment using a hashtag. This began as #youmightbegltbinthesouthif but I expanded it to help reference some of the ways LGBT life is changing in the south. I hope to next talk about the “new south” and the fusion of traditional southern culture with new trends. Post a description of something you think of as a fun, thought-provoking, or quirky example of the newsouth with #newsouth, and share it here on this blog post or on our facebook page.
This Easter Saturday, for the second year in a row, my wife Katharine and I were blessed to go to the home of two of our friends in the Triangle area of North Carolina for an old fashioned southern brunch with a twist. As with any southern brunch, there is rich food. There are good drinks. There is laughter, smiles, and humor. One member of this couple has been known to don a floral apron, engage in serious southern story-telling with a bit of “my word”, “bless their hearts”, and “mercy me” interjected between each story in her rich South Carolina accent which pops up its head whenever she plays hostess. The other busily is making sure there is enough food to eat, plates and seats, and enough sweet tea or drinks to go around, for southern brunch means going home full and happy. The twist is that I am one of the few straight people blessed to be there each year, as this is called by our hostesses “queer brunch”, a gathering of LGBT-identified friends, neighbors, and their allies.
In many ways this gathering of friends and kin-folk for a casual traditional southern Easter brunch celebrating family, spring-time, & the resurrection of their Lord (for this couple are active church-goers), could not be more traditional. It is a quintessential part of life in Dixie. It is what many other families not just across the south-land but across our country do each year regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Yet because it also is hosted by a couple who happen to be two ladies, as a celebration of couples, individuals, and families who either identify as “queer” or “queer allies” it is in many ways emblematic of the changing place of LGBT people here in the south-land.
Growing up, the first memory I have of the phrase “queer as a three dollar bill” or “queer” was hearing some family member with a sneer describe someone as queer. When I asked what it meant, I was told queer people (pronounced “quar” by at least a few in my extended family growing up), were boys who liked to kiss boys or girls who liked to kiss girls. This puzzled me. In the then 5 or 6 short years of my life I had seen aunts kiss their nieces on the forehead, and daddies kiss their sons on their forehead. What was wrong with boys kissing boys or girls kissing girls? I didn’t see the harm but I could tell by the way my relative described it that this must not be a good thing.
Later on, I remember hearing a relative say some pretty harsh things about a “quar” person at their work in passing; and I remember being asked to play “smear the queer” on the school ground. This was a game in which the person who was “it” was called queer and the job was to tackle them as hard as you can. All of this sent the message that, whatever queer was, it was strange. It was to be feared. It was dangerous.
Then I remember sitting at a little country church with my folks in the Adventist-style Church of God tradition I grew up in, hearing a deacon with a deep southern drawl give a message from Genesis about Sodom & Gomorrah and how it was those queer folks who brought the judgment of God on the city, and how “all these queers waving their rainbow flags” would bring the downfall of America. He got into pretty graphic detail both about the depravities he imagined these folk got into, as well as the certain judgments he believed the Lord would rain down upon America for them. I found this message terrifying as a young teenager who was only at that little church for the youth event to follow the service which my home church’s youth group was joining their youth in taking part. Shortly after that message, there was a shooting in my home-town of Fayetteville, NC, by someone who claimed to be trying to punish the army for allowing gays in the military under the recently passed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation pushed by Bill Clinton.
This picture of LGBT people as outcast and rejected by southern culture is the dominant one many of us think of when we think about being LGBT people in the south. It is certainly the main picture of GLBT people in the south in the media. To be fair, the way “queer” was used by people I knew while I was growing up was stigmatizing. It painted same-gender-loving people and people with gender identities more diverse than the usual gender binary I learned as a child as if they were weird, at best freaks to be laughed at and at worst dangerous people who threatened our children, our faith, and our very way of life.
This move to re-embrace queerness as something not deficient or wrong but as just another way among many of being a run-of-the-mill, church-going family in the south which my friends have embraced in their “queer Easter brunch” is emblematic of the way in which the south is changing in its relationship to LGBT people and their families. Like with all the things in southern culture, this process is happening in fits and starts, and includes a great deal of tension on all sides. But I feel it would be good to look for a moment at the changing picture of queer southerners and their families here in Dixie.
I think is important especially as we discuss throughout the south the role of families headed by same-gender couples and transgender people in our communities, our legislatures, and our churches. The changing role of queer people in the south takes on special significance as the Supreme Court of the US debate whether states banning equal protections for same-gender couples & their families that are afforded to other groups in our communities, such as employment protection and inclusion in the institution of marriage, is constitutional. I truly believe one reason that many fail to see a problem with such exclusion is that, like many of the otherwise well-meaning role models I encountered growing up as a young southern straight man, they too fail to see LGBT people as their neighbors. For too many people, all they see or hear about when they hear of LGBT people are the other, someone alien to them, and not the good-hearted neighbors and relatives most LGBT people are.
Because of this factor, I want to spend some time in this southernism post talking about some examples of queer folk here in Dixie I have known, and lessons their lives teach us.
To know the couple who host queer brunch is to know a couple that are truly a picture of neighborliness and some of the best of both southern and Christian values. They are hard-working members of the community – with one working as a social worker and soon to begin divinity school to study to become a United Church of Christ minister, and another working in a way that furthers literature and education. They are active in serving those around them in their community, and devout church-going people. They are the sort of people anyone would be happy to have as a neighbor or a friend.
This is true for far more queer people in our communities than the opponents of LGBT equality often recognize.
Here are some examples of what LGBT life in the south actually looks like now:
#youmightbelgbtinthesouthif, as one reader noted to me, you find yourself a part of a tight-knit and strong community that offers a lot of support and which many outside your circle would envy. I’ve seen this to be true, too, of many aspects of the queer community here in the south-land. I feel the need to build bulwarks of support against much resistance has helped create a resiliency and compassion among so many of the community centers, churches, clubs, groups of friends, support groups, and families which make up the LGBT community here in the south-land.
Sadly, as the reader also noted, it can be hard to find your place in this community at first. At times its hard to know where to find friendships or romance especially in small communities where fewer people are out about their identity and fewer organizations exist. There can be a fear and uncertainty in reaching out. But once you find your place in the community, there are amazing people who stick by you and stand with you.
#youmightbeglbtinthesouthif, like Shawn Thomas of Florida in this video, you are a Christian musician who calls folks to see Christ in their life no matter what prejudice they face for who you are.. And if, despite your ongoing work for Christ, your neighbors may not believe you exist because either they believe gay people can’t be Christians because of prejudice against gay people they themselves have; or they can’t believe any Christians can welcome gay people because of their experience as LGBT people being pushed out of the church.
The reality is that many LGBT people in the south right now are people of faith and leaders in their faith communities. I mentioned my friends who host the queer brunch are active members of their communities, one of whom is beginning to study to become a minister.
The south has a long history of strong, out-spoken Christian leaders.
One of the most important to me is the late Reverend Pauli Murray of Durham, NC, who was recently canonized as a saint by the Episcopal Church, USA. Here is an excerpt from Duke Today (http://today.duke.edu/2012/07/saintmurray) about her life:
“”Pauli Murray had an agenda for the human good that was constant and unswerving.” Bishop Curry said. “As a descendent of slaves and slaveholders, people who were members of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, she is a symbol for the importance of bringing different worlds together, even in midst of great pain.”
“The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray (1910 – 1985) was a nationally and internationally known advocate for human rights and social justice who grew up with her grandparents Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald on Carroll Street in Durham. In 1977 at age 66, she was the first African American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest, offering communion for the first time at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill where her grandmother had been baptized as a slave.
“Prior to answering this calling, Murray worked to address injustice and promote reconciliation between races, sexes, and economic classes through her work as an attorney, writer, feminist, poet, and educator.
“In the 1930s and 40s, she fought against racial segregation in education and public transit. In the 1950s and 1960s, she challenged the Civil Rights Movement to recognize the leadership of women and the double discrimination that minority women face.
“As a lawyer, policy analyst and legal scholar she defied convention by stubbornly carving out her place in a male-dominated profession. She advised First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on civil rights and co-founded the National Organization for Women. As a same-gender-loving woman she struggled to live her life fully in a world not ready for her inclusive vision of freedom.
“Durham can embrace Pauli Murray as an inspiration for our community’s commitment to the struggle for equality, dignity and justice,” said Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project. “With this recognition as an Episcopal Saint, even more people will learn about her legacy of activism and the relevance of her ideas to today’s issues”
Another historic Southerner who identifies as gay is the Rev. Michael Piazza. Within the heart of the gay rights movement, Rev. Michael Piazza organized a powerful ministry of reconciliation in Texas which tore down walls separating LGBT people from the Christian faith and straight people from the queer community. He did this in a time that most vocal Christian voices getting air-time in the south were speaking messages of the same rejection toward LGBT people I grew up hearing. Ultimately that ministry helped birth the Cathedral of Hope, the largest LGBT-welcoming church in America. This Cathedral began as a congregation of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, the first Christian denomination founded by an openly queer man, Rev. Troy Perry of California, out of a movement of religious revival in the queer community that occurred in step with the LGBT rights movement. Ultimately this center of LGBT freedom and equality founded on the Christian faith left the UFMCC to join the United Church of Christ out of a desire to expand its mission to include ministering to those in need of its message of hope and healing beyond the LGBT community. Yet the gifts of healing, reconciliation, and new beginning in Christ it offers were first discovered as a part of the religious revival in the LGBT community which both Perry and Piazza were a part.
Now the Cathedral is under new leadership while Rev. Piazza works within the United Church of Christ with the Center for Progressive Renewal, a ministry which helps revitalize struggling churches across the country using the same principles of welcome, openness, and open-mindedness that were foundational in the success of the Cathedral of Hope.
Piazza is one of many visionary Christian leaders here in the south-land who identify as LGBT. In addition to Rev. Piazza and Rev. Shultz, my own denomination the United Church of Christ has leaders like Rev. Carla Gregg-Kearns of Good Shepherd UCC who as an openly queer woman helps cast a vision for the UCC conference of which she is president, a vision borne in part from her unique experience of faith.
Within the Raleigh, NC, among the Christian ministries casting a new vision of faith for our day is the Gay Christian Network. Headed by Justin Lee, this organization provides a place for evangelical Christians who identify as gay and lesbian whether they choose like, Lee, to enter same-gender relationships, possibly even marrying, settling down, and have a family with a same-gender spouse or to practice the traditional path of celibacy many traditional churches require. Through online groups throughout the world and local and regional gatherings, GCN provides healing communities for those often left out in the mainstream church. Lee and other GCN leaders work to build bridges between traditional evangelical groups which often frown on same-gender relationships and their existing same-gender loving and transgender members.
Additionally, the Campaign for Southern Equality, a group that has been fundamental in raising awareness of the needs of same-gender loving couples here in the south-land including their need for marriage equality, employment, & housing protections, is headed by Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a United Church of Christ minister who was raised in Chapel Hill, NC, and is a same-gender loving person herself.
To hear more about her life and ministry, check out this interview from National Public Radio: http://wunc.org/term/campaign-southern-equality
I have only begun to touch on the examples of LGBT leadership in faith communities of all religious stripes, denominations, and backgrounds in the south-land. It is clear, some of the most devout Christians here in the south-land are same-gender loving and transgender people. This is true as well for the many queer Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jewish believers that I have had the pleasure to know.
Also, #youmightbeglbtinthesouthif , like some good friends of mine, your response to someone talking about your “sinful gay lifestyle” is, “Friend, I think you must have me mistaken for them exciting lesbians on The ‘L’ Word. Our ‘lesbian lifestyle, as you call it, involves raising our chickens, gathering eggs, mowing the lawn, shooting at the gun range, and spending the weekend with our grand-kids. There ain’t a thing shocking or exciting about any of that. But it’s our life, and we’re keeping it together, no matter what y’all think about that”.
My friends’ response to this stereotype is so true. The variety of lifestyles LGBT people have are as varied as those of straight folks like me. There are gun-toting NRA members here in the south-land who are openly queer. There are peace protestors who are LGBT. There are Sunday school teachers, teachers, city council people.
One reader, Sarah S., noted that she gets tired of the message that she is that different than anyone else. Anyone who would get to know her, she sees, would see that she is just like anyone else. She loves her kids. She works hard at her job. She cares for her wife. She’s active at her church. She’s a good neighbor. Many, many people expressed similar things to me.
One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen is how as people get to know the average lives of queer folk here in the south are so similar to everyone else, how lives change. While I was pastoring in Fayetteville, NC, I was blessed to know Heather and Ashley, a couple who made headlines after the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Ashley and Heather had been married legally in a state where same-gender couples were not excluded from marriage. They moved to North Carolina, which at that time had not yet opened marriage to same-gender couples as it has now. Heather was a soldier defending our country at risk of life and limb. They both were devoted mothers to their children. Ashley, trying to get support for the stress it put on her and her family of being the spouse of a soldier raising children, tried to join groups for spouses of soldiers at Fort Bragg. Initially she was shot down. She simply bravely told her story: a story of diapers, of cribs, of babies, of late nights praying and hoping to see her wife come safely home again. As people came to know her story and know her & Heather for the loving, caring people they are, policies began to change in Fort Bragg.
I think also of a couple I knew in their 70’s at a church I served. They had been together for decades, in a time in which same-gender couples were not afforded the right to marriage here in North Carolina. They served at the church and in the community. They were role models of faith and service. They mentored the youth in the church. When one was sick or fell and broke a bone, the other was by their side night and day caring for them. I remember telling another pastor I knew in the community about them. Not knowing they were a same gender couple, he said “We need more good Christian people like that in our community. I wish I had more like them in my church”. When I then told them they were a same-gender couple, you could hear a pin drop. He did not expect, based on his stereotype about what being gay meant, that this type of lifestyle was what being gay is for some people.
But it is. LGBT people here in the south work, pay taxes, marry, raise children, and serve others just as anyone else does. Many of them are wonderful neighbors, friends, and public servants.
#youmightbeglbtinthesouthif you, like the good people of the LGBT Center of Raleigh, you donate food and needed items to GLBT-friendly homelessness organizations like Love Wins Ministries of Raleigh because you know it gets better but you also know it can only get better if you get to stay alive.
#youmightbeglbtinthesouthif you will grow up to be an award-winning actress, model, and spokesperson for women’s equality and LGBT rights as our own child of the south, Laverne Cox of Mobile, Alabama, has. An outspoken woman who is transgender, she has epitomized the power and potential of LGBT people throughout the south-land throughout her career.
#youmightbeglbtinthesouthif, like this couple I was blessed to marry after the end of the ban of same-gender couples marrying in NC fell, you have recently gotten married. Or if you wish you could, for your state still refuses to allow you to marry.
This couple was young and in love, but since the end of the ban on including same-gender couples marry in North Carolina, I have seen couples who have been together much longer than my wife and myself have been married, some together longer than I have been alive, finally marry. And I know in states where marriage equality is not yet here, there are some hoping and praying that they may be able to marry before one of them passes due to illness or age.
Yet there is much to be done in the south-land, and across the country, in terms of recognizing that LGBT people matter and are of equal worth in the south. Some of the following hashtags reflect this:
#youmightbelgbtinthesouthif you don’t yet know you are gay, because of how often in the south we cringe at talk of “sex” even in opposite-sex relationships, and so you may not yet know someone to talk about what makes you different. And if it feels talking about these things might stretch the bounds of southern hospitality.
Reader Erin writes,
“There are two things that stand out for me. First, it took me a long time to really understand that being gay was a thing. I knew I was attracted to women from the time I was in junior high, but I didn’t know any actual living breathing gay people. Being a sheltered kid in a small town, the only gay people I ever heard about were the demon possessed sex fiends in my father’s sermons. Being gay wasn’t an identity, it was a choice made out of rebellion or sinful delusion.
“Second, the Southern tendency towards politeness makes coming out really weird. Southerners aren’t likely to say what they really think to your face. It makes it hard to know when I’m out to someone because people don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation, so they just never bring it up. I got a lot of “just checking in” messages from people I hadn’t heard from in years right after I came out on Facebook. It was frustrating because I knew they were fishing, but I wasn’t going to sign up for a potential sermon on my eventual damnation”
#youmightbeglbtinthesouthif, according to one of the hostesses of “queer brunch”, you know folks who resemble Willie Nelson’s song “Cowboys are Secretly Frequently Fond of Each Other” or may secretly resemble it yourself.
You might laugh at first at this song reference, but the point behind it — the secrecy some live their lives by, is no laughing matter. Having pastored LGBT-affirming churches in rural parts of the south and small towns, I know I have heard far too many stories of folks afraid of being “found out” as gay. Some it is a fear of losing their jobs. Some being ostracized by their families. And in some a very real fear of being harassed, attacked, and physically harmed.
And no wonder. In far too many big cities, let alone small towns, in the south you can see if you look listings describing gay and transgender individuals assaulted or even killed for being who they are. All the more reason to raise awareness, and to help to put in place real protections against hate crimes throughout our beloved south land.
#youmightbelgbtinthesouthif, though you can marry, you know that you might be fired if you post wedding pictures on your desk because your state does not offer employment protections or housing protections to prevent discrimination against queer people.
#youmightbeglbtinthesouthif you are homeless and have been since your parents kicked you out as a teenager when their preacher told them they should. Thank God for ministries like Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, NC, welcoming such youth with the love of God. Sadly, this is far too common.
#youmightbeglbtinthesouthif you have wondered if life was worth living due to the experience of rejection by the church, those who bully you at school, or by your family. Studies finding LGBT youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth, in areas in which youth face persecution or ostracism for being who they are.
#youmightbeglbtinthesouthif, like Maureen and Joann in this scene from the Broadway musical “Rent”, when people see you and spouse they keep mistaking you for sisters who are close — or brothers. Even though you look nothing alike.
One of my most poignant memories while pastoring in LGBT-affirming churches in the south was meeting a couple who worshipped at a church I served for a tour of a historic plantation house near where they lived. While there, amidst the tours of the grounds and the demonstrations of hog-hollering that went on, I overheard how folks talked about them walking, hand in hand. I lost count of the number of people who assumed they were brothers and cousins, even twins, even though one was Native American and the other white. I am certain this assumption was made because it was both clear that these were too good kindhearted Christian people who everyone would be happy to have as their neighbors, and that these two had a close intimacy beyond what mere friends would have. Unconsciously well-meaning southern folk had to come up with some explanation other than the obvious – that they were a couple of over a decade – to explain what they saw.
#youmightbeglbtinthesouthif you have been told by your city, your state, or school that you can’t go to the bathroom. Apparently they think politicians know better than you what gender you are, or what your gender expression ought to be. Sadly, overlooked in the fight for equal access to marriage is the fact that many southern states are trying to legalize restricting access to bath-rooms for transgender people, out of a phobias surrounding stereotypes about transgender people. We need to realize that transgender people are also our neighbors, and if we hope to love them as ourselves this is not something we can do while blocking their basic rights as human beings.
I could go on. Instead, I want to invite you. What are your stories either of being queer here in the south-land, or of the experiences of queer southerners whom you know? What lessons do these experiences teach us about how we can bring out the best of our southern values in ways that make room for all at the family table?
I look forward to hearing your stories.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,