Debating the Gay Equality Movement’s New Southern Strategy

Unfortunately, the road to gay equality in the South is not this straight. 

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Over the last few weeks, Outward has been following news that the Human Rights Campaign and other gay rights activists are looking to the South as the next front in the fight for equality. While this is assuredly good news, questions remain about what style of activism will work best there, both for queer residents and for the neighbors they hope to turn into allies, and what “success” might even look like. Since two of Outward’s primary writers happen to be Southerners—though geographically lapsed, you might say—we decided to chat about our feelings toward the South and what we think will and won’t work back home. (And if you think we’ve been up north too long to know what we’re talking about, set us straight in the comments!)

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J. Bryan Lowder: Howdy Mark! As I know you know, the HRC and a bunch of other LGBTQ MOVEMENT movers have shifted the focus of their activism south of the Mason-Dixon. I reckon the logic is that while the coasts and Northeast have made steady progress (though I bristle at the suggestion that we are somehow “done” up here) in recent years, places like Alabama and Georgia have largely been left behind. It’s time to share some of the recent triumphs with our brothers and sisters down there! As a native Southerner myself—born and raised in the South Carolina Piedmont region—I think this is generally a good and necessary move. But it’s also more complicated than it seems.

Mark Joseph Stern: As a Tallahassee boy myself, I’m overflowing with thoughts about this! Although I must admit at the outset, some are ambivalent, if not downright contradictory. For a long time, the conventional wisdom for gay people in the South was that you should leave—the homophobia is just too terrible for us to ever make progress. That’s a huge part of why I left. And it’s a big part of why I so rarely go back.

So the first question this new strategy raised for me was, did I err in fleeing the South? Was I cowardly? Too impatient? Should I have stayed and fought the good fight? Is progress truly possible in Dixie?

And I have to admit: I’m pretty skeptical Alabama in 2030 will be as progressive as Massachusetts is in 2014.

Bryan:  I share your doubts, for sure. Here’s my story, quickly, for background: I did not come out in any real way until I got to college, in (to the shock of just about everyone I knew) New York City. So saying I “fled” the South because I was gay wouldn’t be quite right. However, I did probably gravitate toward leaving because I didn’t really feel like I made sense as a person in that milieu. Only in retrospect do I recognize that much of that had to do with being gay. When I left, I felt very “good riddance” about the whole thing; but now I find myself nostalgic or at least appreciative of certain aspects of Southern culture—community ties, a sense of personal responsibility, an assumption of good will, the notion that much of what ails us can be solved with a glass of sweet tea—that had previously grated on me.

In any case, I could have gone back after school, but I definitely did not. And I, too, wonder if that was/is a cowardly move. Worldly, out-and-proud people like us are needed if change is going to happen, right? But my read is that it takes a certain kind of very brave gay person to live in the South and bear the nasty parts. Watching a video that the HRC put out this week, I was struck by the way the locals talked about their love of community and family overriding any desire to sashay to a more liberal New York or San Francisco. They are interested in changing people and building bridges; I, meanwhile, am impatient and have little desire to help people “get it.” My motto is very “figure it out girl; not my problem.” Plus, I think I want to be “out”—visible and outspoken—in a different way than maybe those folks need/want to. But I’m going on—does any of that resonate?

Mark:  You are a much better person than I am, Bryan. I hate the South. I really hate it. I see vast swathes of it as a racist, sexist, homophobic wasteland with little, perhaps nothing, redeeming about it. And even the seemingly positive elements of Southern life are really just camouflage for entrenched racist, sexist, homophobic tendencies. Southern courtesy, for instance—so ballyhooed by its practitioners—is often simply a mask for the ugly bigotry that hovers just beneath it. I have no nostalgic ties to the South; I would be perfectly happy to never return.

That’s why, when I read about gay people struggling in the South, my first reaction is usually: For God’s sake, just get out while you still can! But my second, more intelligent reaction is that these people are truly fighting the good fight, one of the most important fights in America today. These are the people who will bring equality to red state America; we owe to them to help out as much as possible.

But I do wonder—how can I really help them? I’m with you: I think anti-gay bigots need to learn to live with the new reality of gay-friendly America, and I’m not inclined to gently ease them into it. That said, the pragmatist in me knows that there’s no other way to teach them tolerance. I suppose, then, if the only way to bring tolerance to the South is to retreat back to a 1990s version of gay rights—gay people aren’t hurting anyone! Let them do what they want in the bedroom! They’re part of the community!—I’ll begrudgingly accept it.

Bryan:  My, don’t you sound like a Yankee with your impertinence? But seriously, I think you are right about the need for a slightly different (and perhaps old-fashioned) model of activism. Mary L. Gray writes about this in her great book, “Out in the Country,” which, to very crudely gloss the argument, suggests that urban models—pride parades, here-queer-get-used-to-it rhetoric, and even the language of innate equality more generally—may not work in rural cultures, places where people are by nature averse to brash assertions of individuality and respect demanded rather than respect “earned,” places where secular humanist notions don’t really jibe with ideas about good/evil, sinner/saved.

For Gray’s informants, an activism based on asserting membership in the community/family structure and appealing to a combination of good manners, basic dignity, community participation, and a fair amount of “to each his own” was more fruitful. (This, for what it’s worth, has certainly worked better in certain of my personal relationships than a politicized argument could ever do.) Of course, that leaves a pride marcher like me fuming and dissatisfied—but since I’m not living there anymore, it’s not really my place to critique, is it?

Mark:  Sitting here in our DC/New York offices in DuPont and the West Village, I guess we don’t really have much room to criticize, do we? And it’s true that the pride march model hasn’t yielded great results south of the Mason-Dixon line. But I fear the “community model” of gay tolerance is just too meek to accomplish anything. Rather than demanding acceptance, you’re begging for recognition. It flips the power dynamic: Whereas the pride marcher is empowered by his sexuality, the Southern community kid is disadvantaged by it. He has to request acceptance from his community. The pride marcher demands it.

But if the pride march model truly isn’t working, then perhaps there really are no other options. Gay people in the South will have to keep begging their neighbors to stop thinking of them as sinful sodomites, and—so the theory goes—at some point, those neighbors will be OK with giving them basic legal rights. Is that correct?

Lowder:  When you put it that way, it does sound rather lame. And to be clear, I’m not necessarily endorsing that model. But there is a nasty tangle of the personal and the political/legal here. I suspect that many Southern gays may not particularly need their neighbors to accept their sexuality—indeed, many of them were probably getting along fine under the rather Southern paradigm off the “eccentric” or “spinster ladies who live together” and don’t feel compelled to demand more than that.

The problem, of course, is the legal side—everyone in our country should have access to the same rights and institutions. But that very demand, being made rightly and loudly now, may be the thing that has turned previously tolerant people against their gay neighbors. Suddenly, (to use a terrible stereotype) that nice sissy hairdresser who works at the beauty parlor is politicized, turned into a “homosexual” with an “agenda.”

You could see this as ripping off a dishonest Band-Aid or as the loss of a different model of tolerance—I personally lean toward the former, but I can also see the latter. My hope is that a SCOTUS decision will be rendered soon that just decides the marriage issue, paired with something like ENDA to get basic rights and protections in place for everyone—because what is rarely acknowledged in the current fetish for the state-by-state approach is that it just gives more time for people to get riled up and resentful of one another. If the basic equality thing could just be done, I bet many current haters would get used to it and chill out relatively quickly—after all, Southerners love nothing more than a status quo.

Mark:  I completely agree—the fraught, pre-equality status quo in parts of the South where gay people were “tolerated” was far too shaky to last for long. As soon as gay people started demanding rights, that whole edifice was bound to crumble. And you can see conservative magazines like the National Review Online and the Daily Caller pushing this process along by labeling gay rights activists an “angry mob.” It’s a common smear tactic already.

And I do think that, as with that other once-hallowed Southern tradition of segregation, SCOTUS is going to lead the way here. It’ll be a lot easier to deal with recalcitrant Southern homophobia once gay people already have equal rights; only then will Southerners truly realize that they’re fighting a losing a war and move onto the next reactionary battle. So maybe the best advice for gay Southerners in the meantime, then, is to wait for SCOTUS to give them a hand up?

Lowder:  Perhaps. This brings me back to the “leave or not to leave” question. I totally get your visceral desire to airlift all of our friends to more hospitable climes, but isn’t there a kind of arrogance in the “it gets better,” move-to-a-big-liberal-city model? I mean, gay people are multi-dimensional. Not all of us want to live in the West Village or DuPont Circle. Nor do all of us have the capital, financial or cultural, to do that. While I love me a gay ghetto, I don’t think that model is sustainable or even desirable for everyone.

You ask what the best advice is for gay Southerners: While I think they (and we) should pray for some legal interventions for sure, I think we should also encourage and empower them to find a model of activism that works in their context. My hope is that it’s somewhere in the middle of the two visions we’ve discussed. Silence and hiding is deadly, but painting Main Street rainbow may not be the best idea either. One of the interviewees in that HRC video made of point of saying that they are not stupid or slow down South just because it’s taking longer—I think we should try to trust her on that. As much as you or I might want to storm back home with our liberal talking points, queer theory, and big city brashness, I think we probably need to strike a more supportive pose. Southerners are tough people—hard-headed as hell—but tough. Once the legal abuses end, I’m more comfortable letting them sort out the social side in their own ways and time.

Mark: I’m cautiously optimistic, too. I refuse to acknowledge a single good thing about the South; but I will say that any gay person brave enough to stay there can be trusted to look out for the best interests of herself and her community. And I’ll do everything I can from my perch here in Dupont to help out … even if I can’t understand why gay Southerners don’t all just pack their bags and join me here in my lovely gay ghetto.